The Shell Game: Young Con Artists on the Move, 1870

It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.

~William of Ockham, 14th Century Scholastic

If you hear hoof beats, then think horses.
If in the big tent, then elephants.
If we are running.

How can we?
If elephants, loose appendages of skin.
Then the freak show. Then we are young
and running. Then in Baton Rouge,
if our Daddies were traitors
and our Mammas wove white flags
from stolen cotton.

If we show up to the big tent,
wooden spikes and striped gingham.
If Baton Rouge, then Selma.
If Selma, then St. Louis.
If St. Louis then Iowa City.
Then Dekalb. If Chicago,
the city of windy tinder.
If Milwaukee. If Green Bay.
If the simplest way is the shortest,
then we are traveling a circuit.

If we are young and running,
then the shell game:

If you have a penny, then buy a chance

at the shell game! Which shell hides the nut?

(Slip the nut up the sleeve) No luck this time.

If you have a second penny, then buy a second chance.

Which shell hides the nut? (Slip the nut)

No luck. Third time’s a charm, if you have

another penny. Drop it on our wooden table.

No luck. If you have a penny, then buy a chance

at the shell game!

Slapping pennies in a bonnet. Slap the bonnet,
jingling, to the fortuneteller’s wagon. How can we?

If we are moving, then we are moving.
If the simplest way // the shortest distance.
If shell, then razor. If we’ve found
a town of dumb farmers, then we have pennies.
If a hundred pennies, then a dollar,
then a roll of silver certificates
kissing our ankles. If the fire is coming
we don’t smell it. If the cards show

the hanged man, we cheat and pick new ones.
We trick the fortuneteller into feeding us each night.
While she’s cooking, we trick the cards.
We trick for the farmers, behind the big tent.
If we are young and running,
the night a barbed stem

stuck in our throats.