Chapter One: CALIFORNIA
I’ve been cheating the Fates right from the start.
The night I was born Ma, Pa, and big sister Cal played cutthroat pinochle by lantern light in the log house of my youth. Ma held a winning hand when the labor pains hit, wouldn’t lay down her cards ‘til she made her bid.
A storm rumbled the sky while they helped Mother to the tracks and onto the handcar. Pa and Cal pumped the handles down the rail line toward the Company House.
According to Ma, “You shot right out in the rain, bounced clean over the edge. Pulled you back, yanking hand over fist on your cord.”
“Lucky to be alive,” they said at the Company House when Pa carried us in. Not one, or two, but three midwives there; the Fair sisters: Lacey, Chloe, and Atropos. They managed the lumber company’s guest house and restaurant. Cal waited tables there.
Thunder clapped and Pa said, “God’s applauding the birth of my son.”
Chloe Fair spun her thread. “It’s God alright, shooting craps across the high heavens.”
Her sister Lacey measured me head to toe. “Beelzebub’s betting the Almighty can’t save this baby’s soul.”
“Who’ll win?” Cal asked.
Atropos, who’d snipped my cord, looked up from beside the couch where they’d laid Ma and little me, “Too soon to tell.”
Lightning struck all around; New Year’s Eve, New Year’s morn.
Nineteen hundred, nineteen ought one, flip a coin; take your pick. With all the fanfare you’d think I’d get more attention, but Ma was back at the stove next day. I got a makeshift bassinet in a corner of the kitchen.
Sister Cal wasn’t born there, but back on the farm in Kansas. The folks lived their ambitions and humor in their children’s names: California, Nevada (born in Nebraska), Louis (for Louisiana), Ida (for Idaho) and off they went. In California, Moreland, Orland and I were born. Cal called me Les right off, never Lester. Mother and Father, they had their mirth. Three boys in a row: More, Or, Les.
After we all rolled out, I wasn’t more or less, but right in the middle, so’s you’d hardly notice; six older, six younger.
Father’s brother, Nolan, taught me how to play cards. Scarcely could walk and talk when he showed me how to shuffle a deck and other tricks of the trade. Soon I was playing rummy with Chloe and Lacey Fair whenever Ma went to town.
Next time Nolan showed at home I boasted, “Double dealt. They never knowed. And I bested ‘em.”
Ma overheard, slapped my hands and said, “That’s cheating. No. No!”
She scowled at Uncle, but when her back was turned he whispered, “Anything goes when you have to play Fair.”