:: Article

Muscle (extract)

By Alan Trotter.

That night there was another card game, larger than usual. It started with five players. _____, Lydia, a Greek barber who lived in the building, an ex-buzzer called Palmer, a dog handler from the track.

And the kid, the talker, was there — Holcomb, who sank into a ball when he got a bad hand and about bust through the ceiling when he had the goods. He was on cheerful form. He made it clear that he’d just been paid, talking about it and then, when that didn’t get the acclaim he wanted, taking the money from his pocket and fanning it for us all to admire.

Only now that he had some money, for the first time he didn’t seem to have any interest in losing it. He made himself comfortable in his chair, sitting out as many hands as he played.

One hand he folded his cards before the op, then pulled out from under the table a small calfskin case that looked new and opened with a snap. From the case he took some wine glasses, enough for everyone at the table. A red scale curved inside each base, a wine stain. He took a bottle from the case and half-filled the glasses with whisky. Then he sat back and swirled his glass lazily and started talking. His subject was how much he liked getting paid, and particularly how much he liked getting paid by the word. (Holcomb, it transpired, wrote stories.) He spoke for a long time about the various feelings having some money in his pocket gave him. The other players sipped at their whiskies. None of them listened.

Lydia went to smoke a black cigarette at the window and look out at the street. The apartment manager was gone and she didn’t know where. If anyone at the table knew they were too kind to tell her. I sat in for her. Holcomb reached quickly the point in his bottle and the evening where his glass butted against his mouth when he lifted it, and drops of the whisky slid down his chin, and when he set it on the table more slopped over the side. He said,

‘The beautiful thing about being paid by the word is that it supplies us with an exchange rate between reality and language. Wait, no, that’s getting ahead of myself, that is abrupt and ugly, a dull edge. We shouldn’t allow dull and brutal things,’ he said, looking at me — I guess because I was the only person still giving him the attention he wanted, ‘when we speak any more than we would when we write.’ I had low suited connectors in my hand. ‘The beautiful thing about being paid by the word,’ said Holcomb, ‘is — well, let’s say all my money comes from my writing and all the writing I do is paid by the word. I write for the love pulps mainly. Terrible things, too coy even to have the dignity of the earnestly seedy. Some science fiction too.

‘Now obviously you could go through my apartment, and for each of my belongings you could attach a label with the cash value of that item. I paid this much for the typewriter, this much for the desk, this much for the brandy. Each word I write I get paid a nickel. Sometimes it’s less than that, sometimes it’s even a bit more. But let’s say a nickel. If you know how many nickels I paid for something you could figure out a word that I’ve sold the necessary number of times to pay for that thing. ‘Now we’ve got a new set of labels for my belongings. It’s not a number and a dollar sign. The scotch is labelled “suddenly”. The typewriter’s got the label “lusting”. There’s plenty of lusting in love pulps. But the desk’s even more expensive, so it’s labelled with a pronoun maybe, or a conjunction. Perhaps “because” is enough to buy the desk. I see your “rugged” and raise you “wistful”!’ he said and threw a couple of chips into the pot, though he’d folded the hand without even looking at his cards. _____ gave him a look and the kid pulled them back, being careful not to disturb the pile.

I folded. Only two players, _____ and Palmer, were still in the pot. Palmer had got early retirement from the force when he was photographed selling guns out the back of his prowl car. We’d met him when we had to break his hand over a small debt. _____ called a raise and dealt another card. Holcomb drew on his cigarette with a look of great concentration.

_____ took the pot and passed the deck for the dog handler, sitting on his left, to shuffle and deal.

‘What’s beautiful about being paid by the word,’ said Holcomb, ‘is that we know exactly what everyone in this room is worth.’ He crossed his arms and took another drag on his smoke. ‘Assuming that they’re worth anything.’ He was offered a card and rejected it, and the game carried on without him. I got another bum hand and folded to a low raise. From the window, Lydia said, ‘What’s horrible about low-rent writers being paid by the word, is that they feel the need to keep going on even when they’ve run out of things to say.’

‘Think about how many words anyone’s going to spend describing you,’ Holcomb carried on, looking at her. ‘Maybe your beau’s composing sonnets right now instead of at a leg show or haggling prices for a lay. Could be.’

Lydia threw a look at him, spat it. ‘And maybe Mrs Palmer’s at home right now filling notebooks with beautiful similes, pages and pages of heartfelt whimsy.’

‘There ain’t no Mrs Palmer,’ said Palmer, though I don’t think Holcomb heard him. ‘Not presently, leastways.’

Lydia smoked her black cigarette and looked out at the empty street however people look at things that don’t mean anything.

I nearly said something to all this, but I couldn’t find the words or the energy. If Lydia had been the kind to take offence I might have worked harder at it.

‘Let’s suppose they are! Right this moment — they’re hard at work behind a pile of heretofore unexpressed affection and rhyming dictionaries. Unimportant — it doesn’t matter. What I mean is, how many words would it take to plumb the depths? How many nickels before they, or anyone else who might turn their pen to the task, scraped bare the walls of the soul they set out to describe?’

The dog handler pushed in half his chips, the stub of his cigar rolling from one side of his mouth to the other. It was the most he’d moved all night. He was like an old Basset Hound which didn’t get excited for much of anything lately, not since its owners had it put down. He kept his hat on at the table, the smoke from the cigar catching and then defecting on the brim, so it tumbled like a waterfall upended.

The only others left in were me and _____. I called, _____ folded. Palmer laid another card on the table. The old dog handler didn’t raise his old runny eyes, just pushed in the rest of his chips, worked his cigar with his big jaw. I called, and looked round to find Lydia had turned from the window and moved toward the game, watching as I doubled her chips, which felt good. When I’d turned my cards to show the droopy hound, I looked to her and she smiled at me, a small smile like it was something she’d whispered, so just I’d catch it. The dog handler took his jacket from the back of his chair, straightened his hat on his head, nodded to the room and left.

Holcomb watched the door close behind the dog handler. ‘A paragraph and a half? Maybe two? What’s that, two hundred words? Five cents a word gives us five dollars for a hundred words. So ten dollars,’ he said and turned around to look at Palmer, then Lydia, then at the Greek barber.

‘How much for this whole room? How much for you, loogan?’ he said to me. I stood up and he backed off as if I’d pulled a gun on him, and Lydia took her seat at the table.

Holcomb lighted a cigarette, trying to look casual. ‘How many words for you, Box?’ he said again. I filled my glass at the tap and sat and watched the game for a while longer. I didn’t even own a rod.

Neither did _____.

After he’d quit talking, Holcomb found himself in a room where all there was for him to do was lose money, but still not in a mood to do it. Losing he could do when it made him feel a victim, but the bills in his wallet were too big a cushion for him to be anything but comfortable, at least in a small stakes game like this. And he was all but incapable of winning.

If only he hadn’t been so lousy at cards. It must have been bittersweet for him — a writer that easy to read.

I didn’t think of that line, that’s something Lydia used on him once at the table. A good one.

Alan Trotter’s Muscle (Faber) is out now.

Alan Trotter is a writer based in Edinburgh. Muscle, his debut novel, won the inaugural Sceptre Prize for a novel-in-progress. He has written short fiction for Somesuch Stories, Under the Influence, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the Electronic Literature Collection, as well as a digital story for phones called All This Rotting.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 8th, 2019.