One Good Hustle - By Billie Livingston


THERE IS PROBABLY at least one good con for a situation like this, one decent, well-executed hustle that would turn the whole scene to my advantage. But I just can’t think straight lately. Feels as if I’ve been beating my brains out forever, just trying to get an edge. Like a total amateur.

Jill’s mom, Ruby, watches me with a closed-mouth smile—almost a smirk from where I’m sitting. We’re in the basement, in Jill’s bedroom, but Jill isn’t here. The second that Ruby pushed through the beaded curtain in the doorway, Jill buggered off upstairs. Obviously a trap.

Ruby is sitting on Jill’s bed now, one hand on either knee, her palms up like Buddha’s mother. She’s probably only forty but her hair is steel grey and she’s built like a chubby bulldog. She’s wearing this long, drapey vest-thing over stretchy black pants, which reminds me of Bea Arthur as Maude, except Ruby’s about half Bea Arthur’s height. Clearly Jill got her gargantuan size from her father’s side of the family.

I tilt up the corners of my mouth but keep it shut. Ruby keeps on smiling, gives me a slow easy blink. This is no staring contest. It’s more like a game of inscrutable chicken.

Finally she exhales through her nose and says, “Well, Sammie, you’ve been sleeping in our basement for two weeks and no one knows why.”

I nod at the floor. She’s got a point. I’ve been hogging half of Jill’s bed now for two weeks exactly. I hadn’t meant to. I kept hoping my dad might show up and I’d get out of here before anyone knew what hit them. Fat chance. Sam’s nowhere to be seen. I’ve got noplace else to go and Ruby’s got me cornered. Sam once said, if you think you got to fight to win then you’re an amateur. “That’s the difference between us and them,” he said. “The professional works out everything that the amateur has to sweat out. If you got to sweat every move, that’s what you call a rough hustle.” He told my mother that shortly before he got arrested and did two years for grand larceny and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I was the minor. I didn’t have to do any time, though. I was only eight.

“Yup,” I finally say out loud. Ruby keeps gawking at me, waiting for an explanation. What does she expect? I can’t rat out my mother.

If I don’t say something, though, she might turf me.

“It’s my mom.” Fill in the blanks yourself.

That is the heart of it, after all. My mother. Marlene’s been the problem for a while. Seems impossible when I think of how just a couple of years ago Marlene was a fucking force of nature! I suppose she always drank a little, but not like this. She was sharp. I told her everything. We trusted each other like crazy. She drilled it into my head that once you catch a person in a lie, it’s hard to ever trust that person again. By “person,” she meant me. Us. Everyone else was grey area.

Nowadays, living with Marlene—talk about your rough hustles. She doesn’t even try to act decent any more. I am sixteen, though. Only one more year until I graduate. Four months after that, I’ll be legal. At midnight, on November 2, 1985, I will be eighteen years old. Until two weeks ago, I thought I could stick it out.

Ruby watches me. She’s waiting for the rest.

“I couldn’t stay,” I tell her. “She’s … you know.”

Forget it. I’m not saying more. I barely even know Jill, never mind her mother. Jill and I only started hanging out a few months ago. She knows I was named after my father and that he doesn’t pay child support. And that Marlene thinks Sam’s a major prick. That’s about it, really. She doesn’t know what kind of people I come from.

“She’s not feeling well. Flu.” I gaze up at Jill’s framed Foxy Brown movie poster, on the wall behind Ruby—Pam Grier in a long black wig with a little silver gun on her ankle. All around her a dozen little Pams beat the shit out of bad guys. Don’t mess aroun’ with … Foxy Brown. She’s the meanest chick in town. I’d never heard of this movie before I knew Jill.

“Sammie,” Ruby calls me back. “Are you saying something?”

I must’ve been moving my lips as I read. Ruby ducks her head, trying to make eye contact, but I’m not into it. I don’t