By James Thompson
I had no business giving that kid five bucks for a slop shot on the eight, but there it was, as ugly as they come. The kid, bleary-eyed and weaving, said “Five bucks, pal, five bucks.” I gave him the money, took quarters from the rail and slipped them into the horizontal slots and dropped a new set of balls. Crouching there I squirted vodka into my Diet Coke from a bottle I kept in my boot.
The kid approached me with the five-dollar bill in his hand. “Tell you what,” he said over a cigarette slanting from between his lips. “I’ll give you a chance. Double or nothing.”
I did not need to look back at my table to know my wife and brother and sister-in-law were making faces, and that Jimbo was just drinking beer.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, rolling a warped 21-weight cue across the green to reckon its skew. “But let’s make it more interesting.”
“Like what?” said the kid.
The kid broke and spread the balls reasonably across the table. I bungled an easy shot on the six and he sunk a big one in the corner. Then I missed another easy shot, a straight one to the corner and the kid dumped two in a row, weaving as he took measure.
The kid grinned and scouted his shot. He took the nine in the side and even used some nice English to roll the cue ball down to the corner for another dump on the eleven. But then he had nowhere to go. My wife, distressed, gave signs to leave.
I missed a simple combination, rattling the five like an amateur, shaking my head. Then Cal came up. “What are you doing betting with these types?” he said. It can only end up bad.
“Kid’s drunk,” I said. “And it’s only five bucks, and it’s been years since I had a chance to play a little bar eight ball. Come on.”
“Look,” said Cal, running his hand over the wisps of hair atop his head. “You don’t want to get back into that shit.”
“Look,” I said to him, holding up my can of Diet Coke. “Look what I’m drinking. And anyway, it’s just a game and I am losing bad. So what? I am finally having a little fun. Take a deep breath. Be Zen.”
The kid said, “Are you going to play or are you going to talk?” A couple of Mexicans or Hondurans stood about with hands in pockets. One placed pair of quarters on the rail.
I rubbed talc between my thumb and index finger and took a sorry shot that left the kid set up for an easy eleven in the side, and, if he would play it right, the fourteen down the rail. He got the side shot, anyway.
I chalked up my cue upon a blue cube and rattled the five in the side without dropping it. The kid finished up the game then, in rapid shots, as there was little left on the table to obstruct him.
My wife, brown as cherry wood and beautiful in her fury, came over and one of the Mexicans eyed her from top to bottom, and she said, “Don’t do this.”
“Calm down, honey,” I said. “We are all letting off a little steam. It’s just a game. Give me a break.”
“You want to let off steam? How about hammering at nails?” she said, saying steam like esteem. “How about a half an hour on the bike, pedaling? If you don’t come soon, I will leave myself.” She walked away and I watched her order a drink. Like she would get far.
I put my quarters into the twin slots and shoved the bar into the side of the table, and the balls dropped. I racked. I gave the kid two twenties and a ten. “Listen,” I said to the kid. “You’ve been kicking my ass righteously. Let’s say you give me a chance to make some of my money back. How about two hundred?”
I looked at him. “Or is that too rich for you?”
“Fucking right,” the kid said. “Two hundred, then.”
“Call every shot,” I said, and the kid nodded. He broke with a flourish, then dropped the fourteen before running out of shots. I took a straightforward shot on the two with top-left English, and left myself for a combination on the three to the four in the opposite corner. I dumped the six in the side and left myself for a rail shot on the five at the far end. The seven then dropped easily though it was a shot across long green, followed by the two, the four and the six. I just kissed the eight with backspin into the side pocket so as not to scratch, and approached the kid for my money.
“You motherfucker,” the kid said to me.
“May be, but you made a bet. Guess I got warmed up,” I said. “I used to play sinuca in Mexico. Pockets are real narrow. You get precise on your shots.”
“Double or nothing.”
“Fine,” I said, “but pay up first. I paid you up after each game.”
The Mexicans in the corner looked at one another. My nose was running from the cigarette smoke. I refused to look over to the table.
“I ain’t paying you,” said the kid. “It’s double or nothing.”
I said okay, but we call it quits after this game, no matter what, and either I pay him nothing or he pays me four hundred. And, by the way, he needed to lay four hundred on the rail to show he’s got the money and isn’t trying to make a fool of me. I made as if to tie my shoe and squirted more vodka into my Diet Coke, stirring it as best I could by shaking the can.
I broke and dropped two big ones and a little one into the pockets. Then I ran the stripes, one by one, including a nice bank shot off the rail into the side and a massé shot over his three to bump my fourteen into the corner pocket.
“Motherfucker,” he said, sucking on a Kool, swaying. “Double or nothing.”
“Sorry,” I said, scooping up the money from the rail. “We agreed this would be the last game.”
I returned to the table, where my family sat. Cal and Jenny were already at the door. My wife stared straight ahead at the table, next to Jimbo.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“I cannot believe you are doing this,” said my wife. “I cannot stay with you.”
Jimbo drained his plastic cup, stood wobbily, and worked his way to the door without words.
I hurried everyone out into the cold and toward the van. My sister fished for something in her purse and I asked her to just move the hell along if she didn’t mind. My brother-in-law moved out into the parking lot and pressed the button to open the van doors. Jimbo lumbered at his single speed.
“Let’s go, everyone,” I said.
The ancient ironwork of Eads Bridge stood black in silhouette against the skyline on the other side of the river. You could just make out the Arch behind it. I shivered, and realized I had left my coat behind. Anything in the pockets? I didn’t think so. I grabbed Letícia’s arm and moved her along over the gravel, and she pulled away from me, head down. Behind me, I heard him. “Hey motherfucker.”
“Jimbo, you want to drive?” I said.
My brother-in-law strode up behind me and said, “You got three guys back there, pal. If my wife gets hurt.”
“She won’t get hurt. They’ve got more to fear from her than she does from them.”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Just get in the van.”
“You really fucked up, pal. It was a nice dinner, and now.”
“Cal, it’s a biker bar. What did you think when you walked in?”
“I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought it would be fun for Jimbo. That is it. And that the girls would put up with it because they like Jimbo too. I didn’t think you would pull a stunt like this, go back to the old days, and suck a bunch of other people into that shit with you. I sure didn’t think that.”
I could hear them still calling behind us, but closer. I scanned the ground for a big enough rock, a piece of wood.
“God damn it,” Cal said, and urged the girls to the van.
“Where do you think you’re going, Dockers?”
“Lock the doors,” I said. I considered what I could do. Hit him with my cell phone. Pitch a handful of gravel into his face. Kick him in the nuts. None of my options seemed viable.
“Hello, fellows,” I said as reassuringly as I knew to do.
“You took my money, man,” said the kid, weaving less in the brisk wind off the river than he had done over the pool table. The windshields of the parked cars were frosted over. The van started up behind me and I heard Jimbo put it into gear.
I saw that the guys who had come out with the kid were the Mexicans. They had to be Oaxacans. Maybe Guatemalans but probably not. The burnt umber skin, straight black hair. Almond eyes.
“What are you vatos doing with this güero?” I said in Spanish.
“You are no Mexican. You sound like a fool speaking that way.”
“Maybe. But I lived in Sinaloa and Morales for some time.”
“What the fuck?” said the kid. “Shut up with that shit.”
Still in Spanish, I said, “I took four hundred dollars from this drunken son of a bitch just now and he wants his money back. You saw that I won the game fairly.”
The kid took out his pool cue and began assembling it, screwing the pieces together. “You give me back my money, you fucking cheater, or I am going to ruin your fucking face.”
My heart raced like it did in the old days. The van pulled away and I was glad for it. The rest of the cars seemed to drift away so that it was just me and the kid and the Mexicans occupying the universe. I swallowed.
“You need to take care of your friend,” I said to them. “He lost a game of pool and he is angry, and I do not blame him. But he lost and that is the end.”
“I told you to cut the fucking spic talk,” said the kid, hefting his cue.
“Where are you from?” I asked the shorter one, who had said nothing yet. “Oaxaca City?”
“God damn it Jesus,” said the kid. “Go back in there. What the fuck did I count on a beaner to help me out for?”
In the dark, the shorter one took a half a step back. “No,” he said. “I am from Coixtlahuaca. You know it?” He shivered in the cold. He was wearing a sateen shirt and no coat.
“No. But I have been to Tule, not so far. Sad place. Very sad. Coixtlahuaca must have been torture growing up. Skinny dogs and bicycles crowding the main street. Men playing dominoes. What do you do?” I still had my money. I was still talking. I thought of Jimbo and my brother-in-law and my sister and my wife in the van, driving somewhere. Probably parked just far enough away, behind a warehouse, maybe dialing 911 on a cell phone.
The kid wound up and began a swing with the pool cue, the fat part aimed at my face, but the guy from Coixtlahuaca grabbed the stick in mid-swing. “Wait,” he said in English. “You lose the game to this guy.”
“Aw, fuck,” said the kid, jerking his cue back. “So he says some bullshit to you in spic talk. You going to side with this cheater over me?”
“You ass-fucking, mother-fucking spics!” said the kid, stomping on the gravel. You let people call you an asshole as long as they do it in that fucked-up, fucking language. God damn it. Never count on a beaner.”
The two Oaxacans looked at him. “You the one lose the game, not us,” said the taller one.
The kid fired up a Kool from his tee shirt pocket. He tugged on his hat. “I don’t need the four hundred so bad I have to cheat for it.” He began to disassemble his cue, smoking. “But don’t you ever come back here again or I’ll bring in some bad-ass white boys to take you down.”
I looked in the distance, toward Eads Bridge, to see if I could make out Jimbo’s parking lights, but I saw nothing. I stood there in the cold with the two shivering Oaxacans.
“Well, then,” I said in Spanish. “I should go.”
“You made four hundred off the güero,” said the short one.
“No, I made two hundred.”
“So now you have four hundred.”
I smiled at him and peeled off ten of the twenties I had taken off the rail of the pool table, and handed them over.
“Here,” I said. “That is half. Thank you. Now, buy a coat for the love of God. You are shivering so much you are making me cold.”
The short Oaxacan laughed. In English, he said, “A coat says this man.”
The other Oaxacan laughed with him. “Look like you the one needs a coat.” And then, in Spanish,
“But save the coat for another day, güero. We know you have another two hundred there. Pass it to me.”
“You are joking.”
“No joke.” The tall one lit a cigarette, calm as could be. I put two fifties and five twenties into his hand, trying to make eye contact. He asked if I had any more and I said, “For the love of God, give me a break.” That was when the short one stepped forward and delivered a punch to the gut that robbed my breath and doubled me over so that the only thing I could see was the gravel of the parking lot, and a crumpled beer can.
The other one started in and I didn’t have a chance. I think I managed to rip the back pocket off his jeans but my ears were ringing by then and I didn’t even know where the horizon was. “Just leave the driver’s license,” I said. “Come on.” But they didn’t.
Two drunks pointed at me and laughed before I worked my way to my feet. I walked down Front Street figuring Jimbo probably parked somewhere close. I pulled my water bottle from my sock and finished the last of the vodka, and the bottle made a hollow plastic sound when I pitched it to the sidewalk. A beggar with a bedroll came out from behind a dumpster and muttered to me, following as I moved along down the sidewalk, my breath visible in the air. “Give me a break,” he kept saying. “Hey man, give me a break.”
“I got no coat, brother, and you want me to give you a break?” I said, my mouth feeling unnaturally wet.
Up ahead I saw a van idling, white exhaust billowing up from the tailpipe, Jimbo and my brother-in-law and my sister and my wife inside, no doubt saying absolutely nothing.
James Thompson lives in Brazil and works in public relations with his wife. His short fiction has appeared in Critical Quarterly, and, at university, he earned the Quinn Fellowship for Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. Another of his short stories will appear in November in Awakenings.
The image is a detail from the photo "Cue Ball" by Jason Weyerman, Omaha, Nebraska.
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