The California Roll: Excerpt

The California Roll
by John Vorhaus

1      ON THE SNUKE

the california roll

The first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she’d just given me ice cream or not. I’d polish off a bowl, drop it in the sink, walk out, walk back in, ask for another, and get it. Boom. They say you can get sick of ice cream if you eat too much. I found that was not the case.

They also say you can’t cheat an honest man, but I say you can. The honest ones never see it coming.

In first grade I cooked up the Golden Recess, which was a Ponzi scheme, though I didn’t know to call it that then. I got my classmates to pool their allowances for me to invest in something. Action figures? Baseball card futures? I really don’t remember. By the time the pyramid collapsed, I’d netted twenty bucks – huge money for first grade – and I didn’t even do time because though of course I got caught no one believed a little kid could have such larceny in his soul.

Honest people. Like I said, they never see it coming.

And snukes – scams or the people who perform them – may have a bad name, but it’s not always the case that someone gets burned. In fact, when you think about it the best cons are the ones that leave people feeling like they got something for their money. And you know what? Sometimes they even do.

Consider the Doolally Shorthair.

I’m like nine, ten, something like that, and I find this stray dog. He was a real mess, with matted and gunked up fur, and scarry evidence of many fights. I knew if I took him to the pound they’d kack him for sure, and I couldn’t stand to see a dog go down. So what I did, I shaved him, and sold him to unsuspecting yuppies as an exotic purebred: the extremely rare and fairly expensive Doolally shorthair terrier. I charged a ton because, again, with honest people, they definitely think the more you pay the more it’s worth. Of course it wouldn’t do to have his hair grow out on them – who ever heard of a longhaired shorthair? – so before I sold him I trained him to pigeon home. Which, at the first opportunity, he does. I shave him again and take him back again, and oh, the happy couple, they can’t believe I found their precious pooch! I explain how the Doolally is so valuable and rare that they all get GPS microchipped at birth, and these yuppies are so grateful they give me a reward, which I protest taking but take just the same.

So the dog bolts again, and I return him again, this time spinning a yarn about how the chip only has a limited number of resets, whatever the hell that means, and had to be replaced – at cost, of course. This they totally buy, and why not? I mean, just look at me, such a choir boy. Beatle bangs, cherry cheeks, scout’s honor smile. That’s always been a strength of my game: I look so straight you’d never believe I’d try to sell you your wallet out of your own back pocket.

Anyway, the dog jets again, and I trot him back again and get paid again. I’m definitely thinking: good times.

But it can’t last forever, right? Even the dullest dull normal will eventually catch on, so after the Doolally’s last scamper, I show up with another mutt, some additional stray I rescued. I suggest that the Doolally is a little more peripatetic – at that age I was all about the SAT words – wandery, yeah, than they can handle, but this other dog is a real homebody and won’t go nomad like the Doolally. A schnufflehund, I called it. Very rare.

Sadly, the schnuffle costs a bit more and would they mind making up the difference?

I kept that one dog, the original Doolally, and placed him in about five different homes before he had the bad luck to get run down by a rototiller (how does that happen?) and in the meantime, that’s the lives of five other strays I saved, plus five other families who got the loyalty and love of a worthy woofer, even if they sort of overpaid for it. So you see, it was like the Haiphong phone book – a Nguyen-Nguyen situation.

Which is not to say that every day is Sunday in the park with George with me. Having been a grifter now for about twenty years (if you count the ice cream thing as the start, which I do), I recognize the big pitfall, and no I’m not talking about getting A) arrested or 2) the crap kicked out of you. (Both I have and neither’s a big deal.) I’m not even talking about what they call grift drift, where you have to make rootlessness your root and homelessness your home because it doesn’t pay to set a stationery target, not in this line of work. No, the real problem with life on the snuke is how it makes you cynical. Once you know how easy it is to pull wool – and it seems like I knew it neonatally – you start to expect the worst, or at least the least, of people. It’s not fair and it’s not fun. So I work hard to keep up my pointillist perspective – make every day indeed Sunday in the park with George if I can – and I always try to give my victims the metaphorical reacharound, so they can feel like crossing paths with me wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to them in life.

According to me, I’m moral.

Plus, according to me I’m normal, which is not at all abnormal when you think about it, because everybody’s default view is the view from inside their own skin. Though I appreciate that I must strike some as strange. First, there’s my career, my chosen line of work, which few would choose. Next there’s my inexpressive expressiveness. I learn like a sponge, and like a sponge I hold everything without judgment, and sort without order. I’m equal parts lunch bucket, pop culture and string theory, and this can make me appear quite random at times, though I find that people find that part of my charm. Of course, what they call charm I call a tool, but that’s a subject for a different time.

Then there’s my name: Radar Hoverlander. Seriously, who’s got a name like that? People assume it’s a fabricat (an invention, that is, like this word), possibly something I cooked up between when I entered Harvard at the age of 15 and got expelled for celebrating my 18th birthday in the apse of the Appleton Chapel with a bottle of absinthe and the underage-yet-in-my-defense-wildly-precocious daughter of a Radcliffe provost. That’s a reasonable supposition. Certainly if I’d been cursed with a Doe-value name, my first order of business would have been to tart it up to suit the grift. Zakaz Kouření, Vietato Fumare, something like that. But Radar Hoverlander I was born, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. Which assertion, of course, might not be all that assuasive, since when it comes to birth certificates I had six at last count. What can I tell you? Documents of identity are to my line of work what bromine and xylene neutralizers are to an EPA cleanup crew. You like to have choices. Anyway, for my given name I can thank my father’s whimsical bent toward palindromics. Which, when you think about it, thank God for Radar, for I could just as easily have been Otto. Or Grogorg. Milton Notlim. Lysander A. Rednasyl. All of this, by the way, according to my mother, for by the time I was old enough to ask such questions, the old man was long since coopgeflonnen. North to Alaska. South to Ixtapa. Or just into the vapor where grifters go when grift drift takes them too far too fast.

Hoverlander, they say, is a family name. German or Dutch, they say. Fabricat, say I. Pure Ellis Island improv. Probably the original was something with an unspeakable number of consonants, or an unsightly and un-American –ilych or –iliescu suffix, which would never do for this conniving bloodline of mine. From what I know of my family – on both sides, because like attracts like – we’ve followed the main chance for a thousand years, with moving on and blending in our ancestral stock in trade. Find a place, stay till you wear the welcome mat flat, then scat. That’s how we ended up in California. We just kept heading west till we ran out of west. The earliest memory I have of my mother is her standing on the end of the Santa Monica pier, saying, “Guam. I wonder what that’s like.”

Fricking Guam. What would we have done there?

Anyway, the point, as the cow said, was moo, because shortly thereafter my mother discovered that while a deftly batted eyelash can cadge a drink or liplock a landlord, no amount of coquettish demur can deter the clammy hands of cancer. So with dad in the wind and mom in the ground, it was just me and my mentis non-compos nana through all the years of my childhood. I perpetrated the fiction that she was taking care of me, though of course it was the other way around. In the end I had to forge some papers, reinvent her as a Navy nurse (with Antarctica Service Medal because if you’re going to lie, lie big) and park her in a VA hospital where liberal applications of morphine derivatives eased her transition from this life to the next.

And by the way, if you want to know why I got kicked out of Harvard, really the apse and the absinthe were just the tip of the icebag. I always said that the thing with the provost’s daughter was an affair of the heart, but in the wake of that myocardial infraction they went back and exhumed my application, cut through the Gordian knot of its lies – so I made up the Finnemore World Prize for Teen Excellence and awarded myself one, so sue me – and gave me the boot. I think they should have given me an honorary degree. Doesn’t imagination count for anything in this world?

Still, Harvard at 15, that was something. I’ve always had a restless mind.

But a real problem with honesty.

It gets me into trouble sometimes.

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