Mathers begins at the end.
Like all great storytellers, he expends exhaustive effort in particularizing his latest caper for all those assembled, but spares them anything prior to the great act itself. They munch thoughtfully on plain sandwiches, smudged with dirty hands, while he recounts every aspect of the day in question. At times of great drama, his irons jingle with the animation of his hands and a wave of kinetic energy transfers down the chain to Booker on his left and Sunshine on his right. His audience is rapt as the tension builds and his story nears the point with which we are all intimately familiar. In other words, the point at which everything went to shit.
“So there we was,” says Mathers, “pants stuffed with cash, guns ditched down the storm drain, just walking along Main Street as easy as can be, nobody suspecting a thing. Matter of fact, the cops was already in the next county, chasing the wrong damn car all over Hell and breakfast.”
The group is hushed, no one risking even to chew his sandwich before the great denouncement to come. We don’t own a pin between us, but this is plainly the time to let it drop.
“It was clean as can be boys – clean as a preacher’s pecker. All we had to do was get down to the bus stop and get on the next Greyhound out. Nice and easy.”
Down the line, Hutch is the first to balk.
“Bull-sheeeit,” he drawls, “If it was so nice and easy, what’re you doing here, tied up with the rest of us common criminals?”
Mathers smiles wide – his bait taken easily on the first go.
“See now, that’s the hell of it, my boy. The three of us walked up the bus counter, and this pretty little thing – all legs and dimples and milk fat cream – asks me do I have identification.”
“Is that all? You got popped for your papers?” says Hutch, now turned heckler.
“Now, I wouldn’t waste your time like that, would I boys?”
There was a general agreement among us that no, he wouldn’t waste our time like that.
“Hell no,” he continued, “Anyhow, as I was saying – this pretty little thing asks me do I have identification. So I say, ‘Why, no ma’am I surely do not. But if you’d like to get to know me better, my name is Mathers P. Washington the Third and the P stands for pleased to meet you.’ Now, as any gentleman would do when courting a lovely lady like that, I took my hat right off my head and bowed just as deep as I could go. And do you know what?”
Nobody knows what, except maybe Maryland since he’s the only one laughing already.
“Them goddamn pants, stuffed to the seams, split right down the crack of my ass and all my hard earned loot went flying everywhere like I was sick with the money-runs!”
At this, Mathers unleashes a month of laughter all at once. He waves his arms and the chains rattle joyously. Everybody laughs with him, all of us enjoying the story as much as the shade and the sandwiches and the cut-grass breeze. Everybody, that is, except Hutch who is still shaking his head in doubt.
Mathers wipes a tear from his eye and takes a break from slapping poor Booker on the back. His smile tightens a bit as he catches his breath and eyes Hutch.
“Ain’t no crime to have money, Mathers. Otherwise there would be some rich old bastards on this line with us.”
Mathers gathers himself for the parry.
“The money ain’t the crime, dummy,” he says, “but there ain’t an innocent man on this green goddamn earth who walks around stuffed full of it like a scarecrow. Don’t you got any sense?”
We mumble our agreement and Hutch looks wounded.
“No. No, I s’pose you don’t,” says Mathers, pulling at the seam, “Say Hutch, what you in for anyway? Nice country-cut boy like you? Surely you ain’t no ‘common street criminal’ like the rest of us here, hmph?”
“Fuck you,” says Hutch through his yellow teeth.
“Speak up now, boy. Pop your mama’s tit out your mouth,” says Mathers, “You get caught with your dirty little hands stuck up some poor girl’s skirt?”
Mathers’ smile turns venomous.
“No, I don’t s’pose that’s it neither,” he muses and his eyes storm, “But how about a little birdy told me you’d be as likely to be wearing that skirt your own self? Now, how about that? Hmph, Hutch – how about that, little birdy?”
Shackles rattle again, but unhappily, as we shift on our haunches and stare at the dirt. Even Maryland isn’t grinning anymore.
“Dammit, Mathers, cut the kid some slack,” says Turnbull.
“Nah, hell. Little boy wanna be a storyteller. Let’s us hear a story, hmph?”
Hutch hasn’t said anything, but the tops of his ears are red and he stares leadshot at Mathers.
“Ain’t got nothing to say to you, Mathers.”
“You see, boys? Hutch here ain’t no storyteller. Just likes to interrupt like a little barking dog. Ain’t that right, Hutch? Like a little puppy dog with no sense. Oh, but puppy wants him a master, don’t he, puppy?”
“That’s enough, Mathers,” I say.
Outside our shade, the heat of the day has reached its peak and whorls of warmth rise from the pavement of the county road. Hutch blinks first, abandoning his gaze and turning his eyes out onto the long ditch trailing back to camp. Black soil, freshly turned, trails along its edge the way we had come. Here and there white chunks of limestone dot the row like pearls. By nightfall, one of them would be missing, carried murderously in the secret clutch of a timid creature. Our break ends and the last of lunch is scarfed down without water. Together we rise and march as one back to our tools – a long iron caterpillar to toil in the dirt without even the promise of wings.
“Step lively there, puppy dog. Got miles to go before we sleep.”
Mathers laughs once more, alone now and wheezy in the heat.