The diner is nearly empty this afternoon, so Roy and Frankie sit at the counter longer than usual. There’s no point in bringing out the playing cards yet, not until more people show. There’s an old couple in the back booth and a little family across the way, but neither set is a good pull. On a day like today, it’s best to wait. This is just for fun, for practice. No need to get tricky. The deer wander into your sights when the deer wander into your sights, Roy always says. No use forcing the issue. No use shooting badgers.
The waitress, who has served Roy and Frankie almost every day for the last six years, walks by the counter and, without stopping the motion of her feet, fills both their coffee mugs to the brim. She does this fluidly, perfectly, like a ballerina, like she’s been trained to do it all her life. Roy grunts his thanks. Frankie eats his burger.
“Gonna get sick off those,” Roy says. The corners of his mouth are smeared with mustard.
“Off them burgers. You got the gout last month, you’re gonna get it again.”
Frankie shrugs. His bony shoulders barely move inside the thin cotton button-down. “I got a lot I can bother you about, do I do it?”
“Sometimes,” says Roy.
“You’re a fat bastard, I bother you about that?”
“Am I doing it now?”
“Not saying you are. I’m saying the last time you ate a bur- ger . . .” Roy shakes his head, wipes his thick cheeks with a paper napkin. “Fuck it, eat what you want.”
“Thank you.” Juice runs down Frankie’s face. His grin is shot with ketchup. They eat in silence.
The waitress makes her way back across the diner, behind the counter. This time she comes to a full stop. Her name tag is a laminated sheet of paper. The ballpoint scrawl reads Sandi. Her hair is limp, dead across her shoulders, sunk low and heavy. Like she washed it with gasoline. “You two gonna want dessert today?” she asks.
“Nah,” says Frankie.
Roy points to his coffee mug; Sandi fills it. “We’re gonna sit for a while, sweetheart, if that’s okay.”
Sandi coughs and walks away. It’s the same every day. Roy and Frankie always tip her well and treat her better than most, so she lets them sit at the counter as long as they like. She looks away when they do the things that they do. Sometimes she listens in, but mostly, she looks away.
Frankie polishes off his burger and sets to work on the garnishings, crunching whole strips of raw onion between his teeth. “That guy I told you about last week—”
“The one from the docks?”
“Yeah, he wants to get together soon. He’s top-heavy, Roy, he’s got people ready to take a fall—”
Roy shakes his head, takes a bite of his turkey on rye. “Not now,” he mumbles. “We’ll get to it later.”
“Later,” Roy repeats.
Frankie spits out the unchewed onion in his mouth, leans into his partner. “What’s a matter with you? Everything’s later these days. You don’t wanna run short, you don’t wanna run long—I can’t get a break. Meantime, I got guys—I got my own guys, you know—breathing down my collar, steaming me up. Can’t front money if I can’t make money, partner.”
Turning around on the diner stool, slowly spinning the rump of his pants against the vinyl beneath, Roy fixes Frankie with his best grimace. Frankie stares back, slack skin hanging off that gaunt face, eyes sunk back like they’re scared of the light. Hair cut short, buzzed to an inch, sideburns loping down the cheeks. He wants to be James Dean, but hasn’t gotten there yet. Roy doubts he ever will.
“Here’s the thing,” begins Roy, but his words are cut off by a two-toned bell. The front door has opened, and the deer have entered the paddock.
College kids, two of them. Boy and girl, hand in hand, wearing school sweatshirts, walking toward the counter. By the time they get there, Roy and Frankie are already deeply involved in their card game, playing as if they’d been concentrating on it for the last two hours.
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” Frankie is saying as the college kids take their seats. “I can take a beating with the rest of ’em.” They are two stools down from Roy and Frankie, but two stools is nothing when it comes to the hook. Two stools is an inch.
“Hell,” says Roy, folding up his cards, making a show of it, “we been playing too long at this, anyway.”
“No, no, you wanna play, we can play . . .”
“Forget it,” Roy says. He collects the cards laid out in front of Frankie and folds them into the deck. “You wanna see if we can get the check?”
Frankie looks around for the waitress, cranes his neck theatrically, but she’s nowhere to be found. She knows better than to come around now. This is the time when she disappears for a while. This is the time when she earns her tips.
“Can you beat that?” says Roy, just a mite louder than necessary. Then, turning his body slightly to the right, he repeats the question: “Can you beat that?”
The boy, nineteen, twenty at the high end, gives off a tight little grin.
“You try to get service, you try to pay . . . Well, whattaya gonna do, right?”
Again, the boy grins. He’s been engaged, but doesn’t know it yet. Roy grins back, then turns to Frankie.
“So we wait.”
“So we wait,” Frankie says.
And they do. A minute, maybe two, and the waitress stays far out of their range. Soon, when the boy and girl have stopped talking to each other and sit quietly, staring at their menus, staring at the counter, Roy lays it in.
“I figured out that game,” he starts.
“The one, the one I showed you last week—”
A burst of laughter from Frankie, a gunshot guffaw. “Dumbest thing I ever seen.”
“No, no,” Roy insists, “I figured out what I was doing wrong. I figured it out, got it all working now.” The deck of cards is suddenly back in his hands, fingers working over the edges.
“Look, I don’t mean to belittle you or nothing,” Frankie explains, “but you suck at card tricks, and I don’t wanna waste my time.”
“Your time’s that precious?”
“Anybody’s time is precious enough not to watch you pooch a card trick.”
Roy sits back hard, breath coming heavy from his mouth, like he’s been hit in the gut. “The hell you know,” he says, recovering, pulling himself back up to the counter. “You’re gonna watch, and you’re gonna like it.”
Frankie shakes his head, slaps the counter. Leans back, across Roy, past Roy, aiming for the boy on the other side. “Hey,” he says, and just as he knew, the college kid turns his head. “Hey, you wanna see my friend make an ass outta himself?”
“Did I ask him if he wanted to see a card trick?” says Roy. “I asked you.”
“And I ain’t all that interested. Maybe if I got company . . .”
“Let the kid eat his lunch. He don’t wanna watch a stupid—”
“Sure,” says the boy, like he’s in on it, like he knows he’s been cued. This is how it should always go down, Roy thinks. This is heaven right here. “We’ll watch.”
Roy doesn’t even need to suppress his grin; it fits for the time and the place, and he lets it bloom across his lips. “Thanks, kid,” he says. Roy looks down at the counter, at the cards in his hand. “No room here—let’s go over to that table.”
Introductions are made. Roy and Frankie are Roy and Frankie, no need to cover it for this. This is their diner. This is no place for hiding. Kevin and Amanda are indeed from the local college, out on lunch break between classes.
“Nice-looking couple,” says Roy once they’re all seated around the laminate table. “You got kids?”
“We’re—we’re just dating,” Kevin stammers. “Two months.”
“Beautiful time,” Roy tells them. “My wife and I dated for six months, then got hitched up in Vegas. Marriage is great, a blessing, gift from the Lord, but dating . . . Special time. Carefree. You kids take it slow, now. No hurry, promise me that.”
Amanda smiles; she’s already in. “We will,” she promises. Like she’s talking to an uncle. Like she’s known him for life. Roy wishes they were all like Amanda. Roy knows that most of them are.
“Pick a card, my educated friend,” says Roy, rifling the deck and slapping it into Kevin’s outstretched palm. “Don’t let me touch the deck, don’t let me see the deck, just pick a card and show it to the others.”
“I got a dunce cap in the car,” Frankie cuts in. “You want me to get it now or wait till you’re done screwing this up?”
Roy gamely ignores Frankie, shoots a hurt look toward his newfound friends, and continues. On the other side of the table, Kevin reaches into the pack and plucks out the three of clubs. He shows it to Amanda, to Frankie, to Amanda again.
“Done?” asks Roy. “Good. Put it back in the deck—don’t turn it, don’t turn it—just put it back wherever you want. There. Now shuffle the cards, shuffle as much as you like. Move those cards all over the place, shake up the neighborhood.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia. Copyright © 2002 by Eric Garcia. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.