He almost fell into the hole.
“Fuck,” the Con Artist said. The stack of fake IDs he’d been holding flew wild, into the dirt, lamination gleaming in the mid-morning sun.
“What the fuck is this?” he muttered, scratching the scar on his chin. Out of all the piss-ant excuses for towns he had vagabonded through, this was surely the pissiest. Long rows of half-built developments, some skeletons of concrete and lumber, others complete and worse for it. The only house that looked even remotely lived-in was a decrepit one-story Spanish Colonial, and the Con Artist only guessed that by the fresh laundry hanging out front, somehow immune from the dust-laden winds. And that house had this goddamn hole hidden amongst some near-dead bougainvillea like a punji pit.
The Con Artist rubbed his temples, which did nothing to shoo away his thumping headache. What would his friends think, seeing him hungover in some nowhere town in the Central Valley with barely a fiver in his wallet? They’d probably ask what he blew all his cash on. He wished he could remember. Everything about the past few days was a sketchy haze, but that was hardly unusual for him.
He bent down to pick up the cards. Luckily none had fallen into the hole. It was an impressive hole, though without purpose; no pipes were laid bare, no plants planted, and it would be an odd place to dig a grave. The Con Artist took some pride in the hole, which struck him as a strange reaction.
Focus, focus. The difference between a broke man in the morning and a rich man in the evening was one word: Hustle. Whoever owned a home with no laundry machine, a patch of ill-mannered octillos, and a fucking hole was not someone together in the head. There was a term for a person whose mind was taking leave. Easy money.
He picked up the first card. Bruce Smith, from the Federal Reserve. A workhouse identity with which he had made some big plays up north, but it felt too harsh for the circumstances. Then there was the glowing countenance of Reverend Bliss Goodsward of the Church of the Holy Dominion of Greater Saints. Oh, that was one of the fun ones, get together with some pals, go door to door at retirement homes, praying up and preying on. But there were no bibles on hand, and the Con Artist wasn’t really in a blissful mood. Ah, but Charles Santiago! Good old Charles Santiago! The Con Artist stared at the picture of himself, as if in a mirror, jet black hair, pristine mustache, scar over his chin like an upside-down 7. Beside him, in shining letters, Field Representative of the Census Bureau written underneath a perfectly faked Department of Commerce watermark.
Pocketing the other identities, the Con Artist brushed dirt off his khakis and walked towards the front door, uncanning the speech long buried in his hippocampus. Good Morning sir/ma’am, I’m a representative of the US Department of yada yada yada. The key was to weave in a quick mention of compensation, at least if the mark seemed the type to take the bait. If the person seemed a bit too on-the-know, then he had some generic forms to give out before getting the hell out of there. His back was sore enough without having to spend a night in some hick jail, again.
Three knocks. Loud but non-threatening.
“Coming…” came a voice. Female, a bit weak, likely an old lady, living alone. Excellent.
The door creaked open and a wrinkled face, encircled by long, silver hair, peaked out..
“Good morning ma’am, I’m—”
The woman screamed.
The Con Artist could only stammer. Was it uncanny serendipity, or had he tried this house before?
“…Yes?” he finally offered.
The woman screamed again. She raised her hands and flung her arms around the man who had been prepared for suspicion, or even threats of violence, but not this.
“Come in, come in, Charlie,” she said, tugging him inside. The living room, doubling as a dining room, looked a sort of elegant squalid: a mantelpiece with dusty memorabilia, tiny oak table covered in sun-faded McDonald’s toys, dollied leather chair scratched-up like rune-marks from some unseen animal. On the walls were years upon years of history in faded frames alongside a pennant for the Los Suelos Blue Dicks.
“Uh,” the Con Artist began, unsure of what level of familiarity he should attempt. “I’m glad to see you, I’m just here to get some updated personal information for the United St—”
A kettle whistled.
“Oh! Tea, let me grab you a cup,” the woman said, dashing around as quick as her bent legs could take her. “It’s your favorite. Chamomile.”
Free for a moment, the Con Artist tried to piece things together. Perhaps he had circled back to some forgotten, old mark. The room did look a tad familiar, and he had a habit of blacking out after paydays. He fumbled around in his pocket and found an orange plastic bottle, the paper ripped off. If he were a betting man—and there was no “if”—then it had been benzos. Ah, such were these halcyon days, he mused to himself, though it was probably Valium or Xanax. The good stuff. The Con Artist was never one for heroin or meth. He was a classy man, only doctor-prescribed, nothing smuggled over any borders. That explained his headache, the empty wallet, and the dark buzz that was his memory of the past few days.
Still, he doubted that he had met this woman before. He didn’t usually mix business with pleasure. The answer lay on the mantelpiece. He stepped up and inspected the photo, faded and stained, of the old woman, just a tad younger; another woman, much younger; and a coal-haired bewhiskered man who looked quite like himself. The old woman’s son, no doubt, and it would take only a spot of dementia to mix the two up.
“Here we are!” the woman said, tray with a cookie spread precariously in one hand, mug of tea in the other. The Con Artist took the tea and thanked her.
“I didn’t know you were coming into town, Charlie,” she said. “How’s that company, you’re working for… Insurance… Something Insurance…”
“United Insurance,” the Con Artist said, hoping the woman wouldn’t contradict him too hard.
“Right, right! Yes, I remember their jingle. Together, all better, we’re united with United!” The woman laughed. She spoke with such confidence that the man had to assume his out-of-the-hat guess was somehow right on. But he couldn’t assume such luck would last long.
“Listen,” he said. “I actually wanted to set something up for you… Mom. The company’s doing a new family insurance plan. Premium, the kind of service the president gets, all on the cheap. I just need some information.”
The old woman smiled and stroked the Con Artist’s face, moving slowly over the scar on his chin. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying your work. I know the whole acting thing didn’t work out down there.”
The Con Artist tried to hold back a smirk. It seemed the “whole acting thing” was working like a charm. And yet, there was some sadness there. Suddenly the Con Artist felt as if he could have been an actor, as if the world, in some inexplicable way, had denied him this success. An odd sentiment, since he had never been taken to the screen or stage, not even a school play.
“It’s too bad,” he said. “But anyways, for this form, I just need your social security number.”
“Seven-three-two, like our street number. Twelve, like the apostles. And then the last four is your birthday!”
The Con Artist scribbled out 732 12 1125. He stopped and stared at the number. November 25th, that wasn’t his birthday. He checked Charlie’s ID, and there it was. He must have memorized it without remembering. Not that it would do him any good, the woman was talking about her son’s birthday, not the fictional one invented by—
“Yep, that’s right,” the woman said, nodding and tapping the paper. “You’re my favorite Sagittarius. Though Mr. Bernard says I shouldn’t listen to such nonsense. Star-gazing distracts us from the hidden truths buried beneath us, he always says.”
Her dementia must be worse than he thought. The idea saddened the Con Artist for some reason. But surely this was not her actual number.
“You know what might make this quicker,” he said. “If I could just see one of your credit cards. It has all the information we need.”
The woman laughed, head bent back. “Oh, you know I never got one of those newfangled plastic whatevers. Don’t know what the government might do with them.” She calmed and stared at him with a sudden, gentle soberness. “But thank you for trying to help your old mother, Charlie. I know it’s been tough for you, ever since Diane… passed. Has it been hard for you? Lonely? Tell your mother, do you feel alone, Charlie?”
Sometimes, he silently admitted. Often. Always. He found that he liked the sound of this Diane woman, though he only knew her name. He wanted desperately to meet her, to see her, to be with her just one last time, just one last moment. To sneak into that drive-in movie theater again, to lie on the grass and hold each other close in the valley chill. Something snuck down his cheek. A tear? For what, some chick he’d never met? The Con Artist couldn’t make sense of the surge of emotion. It must be the comedown from the benzos or whatever he had taken.
“I missed… you,” he finally said. “Which is why I just want to get some information down real quick so I can make sure you’re taken care of.”
The woman slapped her hands. “Oh! I have a video of you two—at your engagement party. Want me to put it on?”
“No, I really don’t—” the Con Artist began, which was both true and very much not. He missed Diane, despite never meeting with her. Whatever he had taken, it was really starting to fuck with his sense of self, and he didn’t need more distractions. But of course the woman ignored him, hobbling over to the dust-encrusted television and slipping a VHS into a fossilized player.
With a click and brief static, a video started playing. It wasn’t what had been promised. Instead, the Con Artist stood as a child on a dreary Sunday. Well, not him, of course, his doppelgänger, Charlie, who in youth looked as he had, only out here, in front of the house, his house, shovel in hand. Beside him was the hole, that same hole, only younger itself, smaller. Towering above them both was Father, lanky and bent, shirt covered in dirt, dark face obscured by the rotting grasp of time upon that magnetic tape. He seemed to be saying something, long hand outstretched, pointing.
The old woman quickly fast-forwarded with a nervous chuckle. “Sorry, always forgot that’s on the same tape. It was so nice of you to help him with his project. He always loved spending time with you. Ah, here it is.”
Relief fell over the Con Artist as the image changed to an upbeat, gold-lit dance hall. There he was, Charlie, suit and tie, and in his arms her, Diane, hair like gilded willow-leaves, smile carved on her face, laughter clear even through the groans and murmurs of the VCR.
He tried not to cry. Failing, he grasped the papers like a desperate totem. “Please, Mother, we just need to fill out—”
And then Charlie fell. A bang, a crash, Diane’s hands over her mouth, someone shouting in the background. The old woman herself appeared on screen, a homunculus, helping her son up.
The real one smiled as blood fell from Charlie’s chin.
“I was frightened then, but it’s kind of funny now. And the scar it gave you still looks handsome.”
The scar. The Con Artist jumped up with a sudden panic and grabbed the photo from the mantle. There, on Charlie’s chin, just as his own, a scar like an upturned 7, the same side, the same length, that same shade of faded ruby red.
“It’s me,” he said.
“Of course it is,” the woman said.
“No, no nonono no! I’m not Charlie! I’m not your son!” the Con Artist shouted. “I’m…” But his name wouldn’t come to him. Other names did. Bruce Smith, Reverend Bliss Goodsward, Dr. Francis Hertz, Professor James Aucun. Every alibi, every crafted persona, he cycled through them like the ID cards in his pocket, but could not find his own. “I’m a representative of the US Department of Commerce.”
“Oh, don’t lie to your mother,” the woman said. “Come on, I even have your room set up.”
She pulled him and he followed, desperately trying to remember his name. Had it been so long since he had last used it? It didn’t make sense. His head still hurt, it pounded, empty and hollow like a well dug deep into the earth.
The room was exactly as he remembered. Bed with a baseball-themed comforter, too juvenile for him even as a child but he could never convince his mom to toss it out. The desk, with its array of mediocre plastic trophies. The rug, stained where his old hound Dutch released incontinent liquids during his final days. And on the table, him, as a teen, next to his father, both looking away from the camera, down into that hole.
“It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me,” the man said.
“I’m not fucking Charlie!” the man shouted. “Don’t you get it, you demented fucking hag! I’m not your goddamn son! I’m a con artist! I’m scamming you!”
“Charlie…” the woman said softly. “It doesn’t matter who you were out there. You’re home. You can be yourself.”
The man wracked his brain, trying to prove her wrong. He looked for memories of his past, of cons gone right or wrong, of friends, sleezy or otherwise, of the trials and tribulations of a life on the lam, of the excesses and debaucheries and the nights spent broke on the greasy floors of motel rooms. And yet nothing came, just brief sketches, ideas not put to ink. He knew he had worked “up north,” but where the fuck was that supposed to be? He had scammed old fogeys with his pals but could not put any dates to scams, or names to his supposed friends. They were just placeholders, mere allusions,caricatures. There was nothing to him. An empty ego, a past without substance. And in his house there were so many memories threatening to break into his mind, thumping on the walls, echoing in the excavated space inside his skull.
“Is it such a bad thing,” the woman asked, “to be my son?”
The man dashed out of the room, pushing her aside, slamming her against the wall. Memories fell from their frames—his first day of school, the school auditorium with him in Shakespearian garb. He ran past the living room where he had spent hours studying, rehearsing lines, where he had first snuck a kiss from Diane while his mother was out picking up takeout at Rosa’s Diner. He rushed through the kitchen, where he remembered first hearing his father mutter about strange things beneath the earth, breath heavy with alcohol. He burst out the door, into the evening light of this horrid town he knew as home.
“You can’t leave! You just got here,” the woman pretending to be his mother shouted. “You can’t leave. You can’t leave, Charlie!”
“I’m not your goddamn—” the man turned and shouted before suddenly tripping.
He fell. Into the hole. Down, hitting his head, then arms, then head again, and landing with a crunch as his legs bent under him.
Pain rushed through him, clearing everything else away. His mother screamed, true fear in her voice. He spat a little blood on his chin and stared upward. He could hear the voice of his mother on the phone, panicked and hyperventilating. Then, crickets, clicking somewhere nearby. He could see the stars above, crawling across the San Joaquin sky. He wondered, suddenly, what all the hubbub was. All the fear, and the shouting, and the drive for more and more and greater and greater. Always trying to climb that hill, tooth and nail, scam and con. It was all so silly, he realized. Everything was okay. He was home.
Charlie smiled and closed his eyes.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.