Lulu and Butterbean
Cheat the Devil
Boy, next time you hear some preacher man tellin' you 'bout how all-mighty powerful the Devil is, you can look that preacher in the eye and tell him that he don't know shit from shinola. I've met the Devil and I tell you, he ain't half as slick as he's made out to be. I'll tell you about it right after you reach me another beer.
See, me and Lulu Cantrell were having a friendly poker game in our trailer over by Flathead Creek one night. As usual, Lulu was winning 'cause she cheats. Don't get me wrong. Lord knows I love that woman, but put a deck of cards in her hand and she turns into the vilest cheater this side of Broomstick Ridge. Lulu learned her skills at the knee of a master. I'm referrin' to Momma Dolly Cantrell, of course, whose Friday night cut-throat pinochle matches are the stuff of legend. Me, I ain't got the knack.
Anyhow, I pretend not to notice that Lulu's cheating, which is the only way of keeping peace in the family. We don't play for money, thank God. I quit playing porker with her for cash ever since we were ten years old and Lulu won a gazillion bazillion dollars from me. As I only had ten cents at the time, I've been paying off the debt ever since.
By some miracle that night, I got a lucky hand - a royal flush, which beat out her four of a kind. Lulu was mighty put out about it, 'specially since she'd have to share the stakes - boiled peanuts, as I recall.
"Butterbean," she says, with one of them looks in her eyes, "if you didn't cheat to get that hand, I'll bet the Devil my head!"
Next thing I know, there's a loud clap of thunder, and a knocking on the door that like to have shook the whole trailer off its blocks. I jumped up to go see who it was, and found a strange man standing there on the steps. He was big fellow, with a crop of black hair and strange yellow eyes. He smiled at me and says, "Is Miz Lulu Cantrell to home? I've come to take her up on her offer. My name is Mr. Scratch."
Well, my heart crawled up into my throat. It might have been from the smell of bad eggs that was drifting in. From behind me, Lulu says, "Do come in." I reckon she thought he was collectin' for the church. I knew who he was right off, dammit, and I wished I'd paid more attention in Sunday school.
The Devil come inside, oozing charm and sulfur stink all over the place. He went straight to Lulu, clip-clopping on the linoleum 'cause he had hooves like a goat instead of proper feet. He says, "I beg to inform you, madame, that Butterbean McCall does not cheat at cards."
"How the hell do you know?" Lulu says, bold as brass. It takes a lot to put the scare on Dolly Cantrell's daughter.
"Because it's my business to know," the Devil says, smiling like a shark that's just spotted a leaky lifeboat full of fat ladies singing their hearts out.
Lulu hemmed and hawed, but in the end, couldn't help but admit that Mr. Scratch had the right of it. His occupation requires a workin' knowledge of sin, after all. As for me, I wasn't going to stand there and let the Devil take poor Lulu away. Only thing was, I couldn't think of a damned thing to do to stop it.
Meanwhile, Lulu had a look on her face that made me sit up and think, uh oh. Yes, you guessed it. She had a plan. I was wound up tighter than a nun's ass in a whorehouse, but I still had a lot of confidence in Lulu. If anybody could beat the Devil at his own game, I'd bet even money that Lulu Cantrell was the one to do it.
Mr. Scratch's grin got so wide, I was afraid he might swallow his own head. "What's your game, Miz Cantrell?" he says.
Lulu proposed a poker game to last until cockcrow. "Five card draw with a ten boiled peanut minimum to open," she says. "Winner takes all."
"Oh, I think we'll play for more than peanuts," says the Devil, pulling a big ol' pouch out of his pants. He opened it up and spilled a heap of gold coins on the table. Lulu looked like she'd swallowed a live frog. He pushed half the pile over to her and sat down.
I sat on the kitchen counter near the open window, so as to keep the bad egg stink to a minimum. It was getting hotter inside the trailer, too. I kept an eye on Lulu as the game commenced, bringing her sweet iced tea and cold towels as needed.
The Devil dealt the first rounds, by the end of which Lulu's pile of gold had gone down considerable. If he was cheating, I sure couldn't spot it. Smooth as silk. Boy, he handled them cards like he'd been born with a deck in his hands. That shit-eating grin on his face never faltered for an instant. The pressure was high, but Lulu didn't break a sweat. After the Devil's fourth royal flush in a row, however, she started getting this look on her face that foretold trouble for all concerned. I figured Mr. Scratch was in for a surprise when it came Lulu's turn to deal, and I was right.
She cracked her knuckles, picked up the deck, and proceeded to open up a can of whoop ass on the Devil. I tell you, Lulu had a mechanic's grip that was a thing of beauty. She knew the faro shuffle, Hindu shuffle, whorehouse shuffle, double duking... she could stack that deck six ways from Sunday. Little did he know that she also kept a hold-out hand (aces full, of course) in her sleeve. She was palming cards, second dealing, bottom dealing, double dealing, center dealing, false cutting... you name it, she knew every trick in the book and some that were invented solely by the Cantrells. Her bluffing was masterful. Lulu had that poor ol' Devil so confused, he didn't know left from right. He kept getting hotter and smellier, until I had to stick my head out of the window just to catch my breath.
At last, the sky lightened. Lulu had most of the gold piled in front of her. It was plain that Mr. Scratch had met his match, and son, he was pretty jacked off about it. "One more hand," he says to Lulu.
"I do believe that dawn has come," says Lulu, raking in her winnings.
The Devil slammed a paw down on that gold. "I think not," he says, showing teeth that were way bigger and sharper than they had been. His face had changed somewhat, too, becoming more beast than man. "The cock hasn't crowed. I insist we play one more hand."
Give Lulu credit for nerve, she never turned a hair. "Fine," she says. "One more hand."
"Agreed. But I'll deal this time," says the Devil.
If I was nervous before, it weren't nothin' compared to how I felt at that moment. My flesh was trying to hump off my bones. I swore that if we lived through this, I was going next door to Bubba James' place and wring his rooster's neck. It had been dawn for five minutes by my reckoning. That lazy no-count sumbitch chicken was going to get Lulu killed. Me too, probably, as I had no intention of letting the Devil run away with Lulu without me putting up a fight. Lord knows, I love that woman to distraction, and she ain't going to Hell without me taggin' along for the ride.
Lulu handed the deck to Mr. Scratch. They both pushed their coins into the center of the table. All or nothing, winner take all. The Devil dealt their hands. Lulu discarded two. He discarded three. Fresh cards for each. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth together. I was positively ill with dread. This was worse than the time me and Cousin Maylene stuck that rotten tater in Papaw McCall's tractor exhaust, and the nasty thing blowed up all over him. Stank to high heaven, enough to gag a maggot. He never gave no indication that he knew who done it, but I swear, I nearly chewed my fingers to nubs, waiting for Papaw's retribution to strike me down. To this day, I can hardly look him in the eye when he says, "Butterbean, pass the potatoes."
Anyhow, the Devil laid his hand down on the table. He was looking real smug. Two pair, aces and eights. Dead man's hand. "I do believe that I have won," he says.
I had seen Lulu's cards from across the room - a busted flush that was worth exactly nothing. She might've been able to bluff her way out in a normal game, but this was the moment of truth. She had to lay down that hand. Our lives were forfeit. We were fixing to board the express train to Hell. I swallowed hard, wishin' I had time to tell Lulu how much I love her. On the other hand, I was kind of glad that I wouldn't have to pay Diddy Ryebolt that fifty dollars I owed him, which Lulu hadn't found out about yet. Just goes to show that every cloud has a silver lining, if you look hard enough.
"Not so fast," Lulu says. She turned over her cards. My eyeballs nearly jumped clean out of my skull. Busted flush, my ass! She had a full house - ladies over fishhooks to me, queens and jacks to you. My heart started beating again. That sweet cheatin' honey-pie had done it, 'cause a full house beats two pair every time! Lulu had beat the Devil! I found out later that she'd had another hold-out hand (a full house, naturally) stuffed inside her bra. Always prepared, that's my Lulu.
Well, Mr. Scratch didn't like that none. He stood up and hollered something, which I'm glad I didn't understand, 'cause I figure my brains might have dribbled out of my ears if I had. Them gold coins turned to worms, all squirming and slimy - the best damned nightcrawlers I ever clapped eyes on. Lulu stood up, too. I reckon she was mightily upset about the cash disappearing. "You sir," she says, turning red in the face, "can go straight to hell!"
And at last, Bubba James' rooster crowed. The trailer door flew open. The Devil swole up until he looked like one of them swamp toads, all bulgy eyes and steam comin' out of his ears. He roared like a stuck boar hog. He stank so much, I like to have tossed up my toenails. He kept on blowing up bigger and bigger, getting hotter by the minute, until bang! The Devil exploded into a bazillion pieces of pure sizzling red-hot spleen. A big wind zoomed inside the trailer, scooped up all them pieces, and flew 'em away. Craziest thing I ever saw. Plumb ruined the linoleum, which I was meanin' to get replaced anyhow.
Lulu had a few things to say about that. I ain't heard such language since Booger Slidell was running a backhoe in his yard and fell through the septic tank. The Roto-Rooter man had a field day, let me tell you.
You know, me and Lulu don't play poker no more. We stick to Old Maid and Go Fish, in case the Devil's still lurking around in the neighborhood. Boiled peanuts have been banned for the time being, so as to avoid temptation.
Never bet the Devil your head, boy, unless you happen to be a card cheatin' Cantrell who keeps a full house in her bra, among other things. Here endeth the lesson. Now reach me another beer.