Allen cracked open the fifth of Jim Beam and turned up the bottle. The dark liquid bubbled.
“Your throat dry, too?” Allen asked. Slim let them drink if they kept their bottles and cans out of sight.
“Now that you mention it,” Billy said. He glanced at Allen before easing down to line up his shot. He sunk the combination five to thirteen, corner pocket.
“See you come to shoot some pool,” Allen said.
Billy stood. He took the bottle from Allen and drank from it as his friend had. Both snapped open a beer. “Yeah,” Allen said, “Let’s play some pool.”
“Eight-ball?” Billy said, though they always played eight-ball.
“Nine-ball,” Allen said.
“Nine-ball?” Billy looked at his friend. He tried to keep his voice flat.
“What you got in mind?”
“Five bucks on the nine.”
Allen and Billy had been laid off from construction work. They did freelance jobs together—built patios or laid driveways, sometimes working for nothing more than a half day’s pay if that’s what the customer could afford. They’d known each other since high school. They bought Harleys and signed up for the Marines together.
They exchanged shots for a few minutes to warm up then lagged to see who would break. Allen aimed for the leading yellow one-ball and cracked it hard, shattering the solid, diamond shaped rack of balls. In the far corner pocket, red number three dropped. The kinks in his shoulders eased. Down his arms, into his hands tension released. He shot through four straight racks—once landing the nine-ball on the first shot which doubled the bet for that game—and went twenty-five dollars up.
Allen drank liquor and sucked on a cold Pabst. He heard two or three people come in, but didn’t turn to look. The light of the afternoon washed over the green baize table for a moment whenever the door opened. Slim maintained nine-foot, unblemished pool tables. He had advanced to the semi-finals in the NCAA Pool and Billiards Championship before an official discovered that his enrollment at the University of Arizona was bogus.
Again, Allen racked them up, slipped the triangle in its slot in the side of the table, then smashed the tight diamond into a wild constellation of ricocheting pool balls. A few minutes later, he combined the eight ball to the nine, dropped it, then racked them up once more. While nosing the cue’s tip to the white cue ball, he felt the spell evaporate. He bowed his head before breaking. He shot. Yellow number one dropped. The table looked funny, too far away. He missed an easy bank shot. The blue two-ball bumped the edge of the side pocket and traced a line back to the center of the green, now immense, flatness.
Billy pounced from his chair while Allen stepped back then sat. Billy leaned onto the tabletop and, as happens with chess, entered its realm. From the moment the blue-chalked tip of his cue touched the cue ball, Billy’s world turned logical: he opened by combining three balls to land the nine. Billy cleared two tables then bubbled the big bottle of Jim Beam and snapped open another Pabst.
He focused his attention on the lighted green rectangle before him—a clean, dense, finite landscape over which he hovered, a hawk corkscrewing above its prey. Though he’d begun his turn with anger welling in his throat toward his friend who’d been playing too well for his taste, automatic, impeccable shot-making graced him. The seducing, cause-and-effect logic of the game obscured his animosity toward Allen, toward his lack of money, toward his diminished bank account.
Allen sat on the chair watching his lead vanish. When Billy finished off his sixth game without even turning to glance at him, Allen hissed shit loud enough to catch Billy’s attention. Together they had drunk over half the bourbon and both had opened their fourth beer. Allen knew that when he got up to shoot again, he would be unsteady…but besides that, he’d become downright bored.
“Say something?” Billy said.
“I’m just wondering why you never became a monk.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You sure don’t set records for talk.”
“Ain’t Kelly been whispering in your ear lately?”
As a matter of fact, Kelly hadn’t been whispering in his ear lately. He’d found out she started seeing Herman Joe Banks who was perhaps the ugliest son of a bitch that ever drove a Corvette.
Allen sat on Billy’s insult for a moment. He saw that he’d broken Billy’s concentration because Billy now breathed through his nose and stalked around the table like a puffed-up rooster.
The attendant, Nicholas Grainer, 18-years old, sat with elbows on the counter reading “Car and Driver” magazine. He glanced up when he heard Billy and Allen begin to exchange words and saw that they rested their pool cues on the edge of the table like swords. His father had persuaded him to go to the state college. Over the summer he caught the school-bug, the first time in his life. He wanted to get the hell out of this podunk Maryland suburb or town or whatever the hell it had turned into. Men had been coming into the pool hall in groups every afternoon to kill time. He heard his neighbors talking about the lack of work, hard times, and no money. They’d been talking that way since he could remember, but their words had an edge now. His father sat on the front porch steps and fixed neighborhood kids’ bikes or worked on the roof or spent time rooting around the garden. He visited her gravesite more often. A week ago, they took the hour bus ride into Washington D.C. just to get out of town.
“Fuck you, boy,” Allen said. They charged each other.
“Damn,” Nicholas said aloud and stood.
Tillie worked on Slim’s books in the back office through the closed door behind Nicholas. She had agreed to be around while he went fishing for the week with his brother up in New York State. She was a friend and she needed the money. She called her husband who stayed with the kids. He’d told her last night that he might have found something with a road crew up north in Pennsylvania. He would take the job even if it meant staying away through the week and maybe the weekends. They had to eat.
“Bruce, I got some bad news.”
“We need more bad news?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Tell me yours,” he said.
“I’m digging into Slim’s books. He’s been skimming his partners.”
“Leave it alone.”
“We’ve known John and Dave since we were kids. He’s stealing off them.”
“Leave it alone, Till.”
“He had to know I would see it. He asked me to come in and straighten out his books for him, and two days into it, here I am. Here I am, Bruce. He’s stealing from John and Dave. I’m sick about it.”
“Leave it alone.”
“How the hell am I supposed to leave it alone? I know about it now!” She raised her voice.
He raised his, “I’ll tell you how you leave it alone. You leave it alone! Shit to fucking hell.”
“What is it, Bruce?”
She heard him exhale; “Marie needs more tests. I talked to Dr. Hendricks. He said what they got is inconclusive.”
Tillie sat down. She heard crackling inside her head like someone bunching cellophane. She blinked and felt over-warm. One friend, Slim, cheating other friends, John and Dave. One month late on their mortgage. One husband out of a job. One child with headaches and seizures. One whole family without health insurance. One mother who did not want them to go on food stamps again.
“Jesus,” she said.
“You can run her up to the doctor’s tomorrow, can’t you? I got to drive up north.”
“How are we going to pay for it?”
“We pay for it.”
She heard Nicolas’s bang on the office door and shout that there was another fight.
“I’ll call you back.”
She plucked off the wall what Slim called his noggin-knocker: 24 inches of the butt end of a pool cue with a leather wrist strap. She’d been on the field hockey team in high school and kept herself a fit 142 pounds by playing on the local women’s softball team and once in a while going out to the garage to lift iron with Bruce. She went through the door.
Allen and Billy spilled onto the floor then stood up and lunged toward each other and both managed to find a grip. They swayed and grunted, locked onto each other’s arms like two crabs before they fell again wrestling for advantage. A crowd of pool players gathered around them holding cues.
“Come on boys. You’re just pretending,” somebody said.
Two of them went back to playing pool. One said, “I thought we was going to see a fight.”
Tillie broke through the ring of onlookers and kicked Allen, whom she’d held in her arms as infant, kicked him hard again, then swung the wooden knocker down.
“Aunt Tillie,” he said, holding the top of his head.
She swung down again, cracking his fingers and skull. His arms eased and he spread like a settling sack of potatoes.
“Tillie,” Billy said, “What the hell.”
She backhanded the knocker and whacked him in the mouth. He cried out. Blood leaked through his fingers onto the front of his shirt.
“Jesus Christ Almighty, Tillie,” a rangy man with a large Adam’s apple said. “Enough already. That don’t make sense.”
She stepped toward him, raised the baton to strike. “Talk to me about sense,” she said.
A burly man in a flannel shirt with a thick red beard, one of her husband’s friends, elbowed forward and put his arms around her. “Tillie,” he said. “Hold on. Just hold on.”
Kevin Lavey’s stories have been published in Free State Review, Witness, Literary Orphans, Fiction on the Web, and The Lifted Brow, among others. He has won two Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards for fiction. His novel, Rat, was published in 2022. He is a retired public school teacher.