IN THE HEADLIGHTS
"Hey, how 'bout a game?" The boy scooped the colored balls out of the pockets with the flick of his wrist so they arced back up over the table and dropped onto the felt. She shifted her bag from one side to the other and narrowed her eyes at him. Lou's attracted goofy characters. It always took a time or two for them to realize she was different than most of the people who drifted in. She hadn't seen him in there before, but he was definitely a type. He was the only other customer in the place.
He grinned a little. "C'mon. Two bucks." His eyes were eager, his skin smooth, that odd age when a boy thinks he's far more of a man than he is. She looked at him quizzically, passing the table. He was wearing a white undershirt and an open short-sleeved pale-blue plaid polyester shirt over jeans. The jeans had been fashionably slashed at the knees. His hair was ridged, as if he'd put on a ball cap before it was completely dry. She looked down his slender arms for the telltale ballpoint pen tattoos, but didn't see any.
"Thanks," she said. "I don't play pool."
"What do you play?"
"That's okay, too," he said, leaving his table and following her toward the billiard table. "We can play billiards."
"Thanks, but I'm just practicing." The state-wide championships were only a few weeks off. She had played last year, qualified a few months ago for the state-wide this year. But that was before George had taken up with the only girl who worked behind the counter at Shots. She had resolved never to darken their door again. But the closer the championship came, the more she was tempted. Women players were hard to come by, and she was confident in her abilities in that regard. But she wanted to be good enough to compete with the men. It was a futile. Some of them did virtually nothing with their lives but shoot little balls into little pockets. What was the line from the Music Man? "With a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for Pool."
"Two bucks. Come on." He came forward, hand out entreatingly. She regarded him cautiously, the outstretched hand, the overly-eager, overly-friendly puppy look. There was an edge there, though, in the too-thin limbs, the furtive gestures.
"I don't think so," she said, turning the balls onto the table. Lou's had a billiards table and there was one at Shots but those were the only two in town. Only old men played billiards anymore. Old men and her. It was a waste of space as far as business was concerned, and she knew before long, they would probably take them out and put in straight pool tables.
It wasn't just billiards and pool that separated her from the other customers. Men played for camaraderie, for the drinking and the small-stakes gambling. They were there to show off for one another, to flex their machismo in front of those of their kind. She came to shoot, because it meant something about her intellectually, that she could figure the angles. She liked to watch the people, too, watch men at play when they think women aren't paying attention.
He circled the table, running his fingers along the cushion. "Why not?" he wheedled.
"Why not what?" She unzipped the long thin brown leather case and took out the mother-of-pearl inlaid cue. Deftly she slipped the pieces together, turned the top to tighten them. He took down a cue from the rack on the wall and rolled it on the neighboring table. It boiled against the surface.
"Piece of shit place," he observed.
He tried another. "Damn."
"Try the rack by the Michelob sign," she suggested, without knowing why. She didn't want to play with him. She just wanted to do some practice English shots and get back to work.
"Where's the rack?"
"Billiards isn't played with a rack of balls," she said. "That's called pocket billiards, pool to you. Billiards originated in the 1300s."
"No shit. Notice the table has no pockets? You play off the cushions. The two players, if indeed there are two players, lag for the first shot. They shoot their cue balls to the foot, that the far end, of the table, and the one that comes back closest to the head of the table gets the first shot. In two-party play there are only three balls on the table, one cue ball for each player and one red ball, called an object ball, placed at the spot, there." She pointed and shot her ball. It struck the red ball and rebounded against the cue white ball of the second, phantom player. "That's one point. Play continues until the player misses the carom, or billiard, which is what hitting that red ball is called."
"Well, each carom is one point, and you keep score. It's not that difficult but there are subtleties to it I won't go into now."
"So that's it."
She leaned over the table and shot again.
"Well, that's really fucked up. Can't you play pool?"
She sighed heavily. "Fine. You want to play pool? We'll play pool. Get the balls." She stepped the next table while he flew to the bar and got a tray of multicolored balls. She racked them and brought the triangle up off the felt with a flourish, spinning it in her hands like a shark.
He picked a cue that less wavy than the others. "Look, lady, if you've got your own cue and you rack like that, you must know what you're doing."
"Well, watch me shoot," she laughed. "You might form a different opinion."
"Seriously." She looked up at him. He was serious, his face suddenly clean of the almost hostile eagerness.
"Billiards, pool, any of it. It's like a dance, with intricate, sometimes elegant moves," she said. "They're historically significant games, and the men who played them to begin with were no slouches. It's an intellectual exercise."
"You think so?" he said, leaning against the cue. "You gonna shoot or what?"
"Don't lean against the cue," she chided. "If Lou saw you doing that she'd throw you out."
"This is a piece of shit place," he said. He thrust his hands in his pockets, turned away without moving his feet, and then snapped back, as if he'd just remembered his original mission. "Two bucks."
"Why?" she said.
"Cause. It makes it interesting."
"I'm not interested in interesting."
"C'mon." He purred, sliding close to her. She felt like a teenaged girl on a date. She cut her eyes at him, and he returned the look mischievously. His eyes were large, pale blue, his hair tousled, the last degree between blonde and brunette. If he had begun to shave, it was only in a little patch along the base of his chin. He had the look of a wicked angel, one of those tumbled out of heaven when God lost patience with the lot of them.
"How old are you?" she asked sharply.
"Fifteen." He cocked his head defiantly. Seven years older than her eldest son. It was incomprehensible how much a child could change in so few years. "How old are you?" he shot back.
"Twenty-eight," she answered, almost equally acerbic. There was a long pause. She bent over the table to make the shot. It wouldn't go. She pulled the bridge from its rack under the table and set it on the felt, angled the shot and heard the satisfying thump as the ball rolled into the corner pocket.
"You look pretty good for twenty-eight," he said with wonder.
"Thanks." She stepped toward him. "You're in the way of my ball."
"Two bucks?" The wheedle came back into his voice.
"Look," she turned and leaned on her own cue. "Let me explain this once and for all. I don't gamble. Period."
"Well, just this once."
"Not even this once."
"What if I'm really lousy and you win?"
Why would he think she would want his two bucks? She straightened back up and smiled, then laughed a little. "Son, I have not doubt you're really lousy and I'd win." His eyes caught hers and he his mouth moved slowly into something that could have been a smile or a sneer.
"I don't gamble. It's a rule. I just don't."
The door swung open and let the noon light slink in momentarily. It was a man in his mid-thirties, in a grey workshirt and dark jeans. He went to the bar, ordered a beer and sat down.
"See ya," the boy said brusquely.
"Later," she said, leaning to the shot. He went to the bar.
"Hey," he said to the new man. "Want a game? Two bucks."
"Yeh. Sure." The man took his beer and followed the boy to the adjacent table. While the older one selected a cue, the boy sidled back up to her.
"I got a game."
"Good for you," she said drily.
Without concentrating too intently, she watched them play, almost peripherally. He lost the first game, then the second. Time for him to come around, she thought. This is where the shark really loads it on. Having lulled the pigeon into confidence through little wins, he ups the stakes saying if there was more pressure he'd do better. The pigeon, on the other hand, delighted with the shark's losses, places higher bets. When the stakes are rich enough, the shark scoops it and collects the winnings. The boy lost the third game. It was time for him to do his bit. Still, he didn't turn the table and lost yet another game. Finally, the man stuck out his hand. "Good takin' your money," he laughed. The boy pulled out a wad of crumpled ones and handed them over. The man threw back the rest of his beer, dropped his cue on the table and left.
The boy turned back to her grimly. "That sucked."
"You aren't very good," she said gently.
"Just a bad day," he said miserably. "I'll get warmed up. If you'd played me, I'd'a been warmed up." He shot her what was supposed to be a guilt-inducing look.
She shrugged. "Don't blame me."
He looked down at the green and brown diamond weave of the carpet. It was designed to be wall-to-wall, but the previous owner only bought enough to cover a few hundred square feet of the room. The rest was bare concrete. "Damn. That was what I had to eat on today." He leaned against the table.
"I'm sorry," she said. She genuinely meant it, too. She could tell, in the swagger of the other man that he thought himself manlier for having taken the boy's money. The boy was an idiot, but the man was unkind.
"Doesn't matter." His mood was completely different. She felt for him. Still, he was dressed well enough, in that adolescently tacky way. His parents were probably well enough off. His ego was stinging, that's all. She was a poor loser, too. They say women are, by nature, bad losers. Good enough. They aren't raised to thrive on competitive games, or with the Chesterfilian or Marquis of Queensbury ethos.
She glanced at her watch. It was 12:45. She scooped the balls up and put them in the holder.
"Yes. I have to get back to work."
"Whatever," he said dismissively, looking away.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "Listen, you'll get good. You just need to practice." She took the cue apart and replaced it in its case and zipped it with an air of finality.
He turned his eyes slowly, wiltingly to her. "I don't have any money to practice on now."
"Well, maybe later. You have pretty good form. You just need some work on your technique. It takes a long time to get good. It takes a lot longer to be a shark. You're just trying to get into the business a little too soon." She shrugged. "It's not a good business anyway. You need to find another career choice."
"Shit. I learned on bar tables." He looked at her full again, and she understood completely.
She dropped the balls into the black plastic tray and carried it to the counter. "That was your first mistake. You should learn on full sized tables and when you're good at that, go down to the barsized ones and clean up." She was instantly embarrassed. Why was she, a near middle aged account executive at a printing company giving a boy half her age advise about sharking? It was repugnant to her. But he looked so unhappy. "Anyway, that's one of the reasons I play billiards. It's a much harder game. Then when you compete, the pressure isn't as great."
Lou came over, wiping her hands on a small fluffy towel. "All done?"
"Thanks." She pulled out a dollar and a quarter and put it in the woman's hands. She turned to the boy. "It was nice meeting you."
"Walter." He put his hand out.
"Walter." She took his hand and shook it. It was bony, damp.
"It's a piece of shit name."
She laughed. "I had an uncle Walter. It's a fine name. I'm Hilde. I'll see you again." She didn't really mean it, unless he happened to skip school again on one of her lunch hours.
* * *
Several days later, she came into the Lou's again. He was sitting on the edge of one of the back tables, rolling balls around. "Hey," he jumped up when he saw her. "Wanna play?" She could have sworn he was wearing the same clothes he was wearing when she saw him the first time.
She waved her hand at him. "I told you..."
"Just for fun." He had that amiable puppy look about him again.
She looked at him incisively. In truth, she didn't want to play. She came to practice, to perfect shots, not to get involved in all the competitive nonsense of a game. Besides, she was a bad loser. Losing meant feeling unwieldy emotions, and she hated an excess of any emotion. She studied him. He wagged back and forth a little, stooping and grinning. Maybe in a few years, her sons would be like this, bouncy, wiry, a little pushy but basically alright. Maternal feelings welled up in her. In truth, she looked forward to her boys' adolescence. For all the trouble they cause, there was something charming about them.
"Alright," she acquiesced. "Get the balls and set them up."
"I can't play that," he said gesturing at the billiards table.
"Fine. We'll play something else."
He bounced eagerly to the bar, returned with a tray and quickly tossed them, one by one, into the triangle. "Nine ball? Eight ball?"
"I don't care. You say."
"O.K. Eight ball."
It was the easier of the two, certainly. "Fine." She chalked her cue. "Why aren't you in school?"
He looked at her slyly. "School?"
"Yeh. But I don't go to school."
He pulled the triangle off. "How'd you do that the other day?" She looked at him with mock disgust, walked to the foot of the table and replaced the triangle. "Watch," she said, removing it with a flourish. She put it back down. "You try it."
He took it in his hands and pulled it up. One of the balls rolled a fraction of an inch away from its fellows. "Shit."
"You'll get it," she said. "My break?"
She stroked through the break, scattering the balls in all directions. Two went in. "Stripes or solids?" he said.
"Stripes." She leaned forward and shot.
"Can you do combinations?" he asked.
"Poorly," she admitted.
"You're pretty good for a broad," he chortled.
She straightened up. "What did you say?"
"I mean. For a...lady, or a woman or...chick?"
"Very funny." The blue stripe went in. She missed on the next ball. "Your shot."
He laid up against the table, his shirt fluttering down and puddling on the side rail. He drew back the cue and blasted the cue ball into the others. She shook her head. "Terrible."
"Well, it's a fucked up table."
"You don't just..." She laughed a little. "Never mind. Chalk your cue. What do you mean you don't go to school?"
"I don't go to school. Well," his voice tightened a little. "I mean, not here."
"Where do you go to school?"
"Cincinnati? That's a long bike ride every day, son. What are you doing down here?" She made the shot. There was a long pause. "I'm sorry?"
"Nothin'. I'm just here."
"Visiting? Do you have relatives here?"
There was another pause. She called, then shot the eightball into the left side pocket, with just enough draw to send the cue ball back to the center of the table. "Rack 'em," she said. He moved around the table, lithe and slender, tucking the balls into the triangle as he dragged it around the felt. "Do your parents know where you are?"
He stopped in front of her. He had a fierce, almost sarcastic look in his eyes. He was fully a head taller than her and moved, snakelike above her. "As a matter of fact," he said with intense precision. "I don't know where half of them are, and neither of them know where I am, so it's even."
"Walter," she said with genuine concern. "Walter, that's terrible."
"It's not either," he said defiantly. "We gonna play pool or are you gonna give me a sermon?"
"Well," she said definitively. "Both, I think."
"Skip the sermon." He glared at her, then softened. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"It's okay," she said. "So when you said that was all you had to eat on, you meant, that was all you had."
"You're trying to hustle pool to eat?"
"Oh, Walter," she stepped up and broke. "You're in the wrong field. The sharks only make it look easy. It takes hours and hours and years of practice, and then they waste it by using the skills to take advantage of other people." The cue ball followed the green ball into the pocket.
He took it out and replaced it on the table. "Face it, lady, there aren't many career opportunities out here for fifteen year olds."
She took him in. "I guess not." He shot a yellow stripe into the corner pocket. "Walter, that's a scratch. I'm stripes."
"Where are you staying?"
"So that's alright?"
"Yeh." He looked at her as if she'd insulted him. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
"I'm not worried," she said quickly. "Why did you leave home?"
He looked at her sharply. "Never mind," she said. "If you don't want to tell me, don't." He missed and she shot two more balls in. "What are you going to do? Just stay here and try to hustle pool?"
"Yeh. For a while."
"Then you'd better learn something about it."
"You teach me?"
"I'll teach you what I know, but it isn't much," she admitted. "Meanwhile, there's a public library three blocks due west of here. Avail yourself of it. There's books on pool playing. A lot of it is theory, but if you don't get the underlying theory you can't play the game. How were you at geometry?"
"Never took it."
"You have to know how to calculate angles. Here's the best advice I can give you. Kneel down beside the table..." she grinned a little. "And then pray like hell."
He laughed. "That was good."
"Seriously though. Line up your cue so that you measure the angle between the object ball, the one you want to hit and the pocket you want it to go in. Then rotate your cue so that the invisible line to the pocket and the invisible line from the cue ball to the object ball..."
"You lost me completely," he scoffed.
"I lost myself," she admitted. "Come here." She motioned him down to the level of the balls, measured the angles and made the shot. It went in perfectly. "See?"
"I think so."
"You do it." She took two balls and lined them up.
"Hey..." he said, affronted.
"Forget playing, Walter. You have to learn the game before you play it."
He made practice shots for a few minutes. "I have to go," she said finally, looking at her watch.
"I have to go back to work."
"When will you be back?"
"Sometime," she said. "Probably in a few days."
* * *
She mechanically went through the paces of fixing dinner, playing a few games with the boys and then shooing them off to get ready for bed. Walter weighed on her mind as she went through all the steps. Did his mother bring him towels when he called from the bathroom that he had dropped his in the tub? Had she overindulged him, or ignored even the simple acts of kindness that breed genuine affection between people? What about the father? Her children had no fathers, and it was hard to bear it all alone. Was he an only child or were there others?
Fifteen. Just a boy. Whatever his home life, he was far too young to be out fending for himself. At fifteen, she was intelligent enough, maybe, but certainly too immature, too inexperienced to be able to navigate the world of adults alone. There was a sense of simplicity about things. You were either hungry or you weren't. You had a place to sleep or you didn't. It wasn't complicated with greater issues, like the future. Luck would take care of the future. Children supposedly pass from the concrete to the abstract stage of thought around age ten. But even in mid-adolescence, that concrete way of thinking is shamelessly present. He knew from nothing.
But this was a fairly small, sedate town. There were shelters. He was probably in one. They weren't heavily used. There wasn't much call for that sort of thing here anymore than there would be for a massive symphony orchestra. Athens was just a town in the middle of everything--the middle of the midwest, middle class, with a middling intellectual class and middling poor. He was probably better off here than in a big city. Like moving down from billiards to pool, he had come from a big city to a little town. This should be nothing. She needn't worry.
She sat on the edge of her younger son's bed. The older one laid on top of the blanket while she recited rabbit stories. All these years, and they never tired of the same damned stories. They would chime in on particularly delicious lines like "and he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor" or "which he intended to pop on the top of Peter". The five year old always fell asleep before the end of the story. He would grow up never knowing what became of the Flopsy Bunnies, whether or not they ever got out of the gunny sack.
"He's asleep," she whispered, stroking his smooth forehead. She turned to the older one. "You ready to go to your bed?" He nodded sleepily and she guided him up. He had a small body, smaller than other boys his age. She ran her hand down his firm little back and he slipped out of the bed and shuffled down the hall.
He crawled into the bed and flopped onto his back. She pulled the soft quilt up to his chin and rested her hand on it. She'd made quilts for years, hand stitched the pieces together. Never been able to quilt them properly, hers lumped a little, but they made her feel womanly nonetheless. "You stay with me?" he asked sleepily.
"For a few minutes." There was a lot of noise outside. She moved the curtain for a look. The western sky was still glowing like light through an amber stone. In the parking lot below there were three women in veils talking together while their children ran circles around them, crowing and shouting to each other. She let the curtain drop.
She had copy to edit. It was a bad time of year. Extra work had been laid on by the upcoming holiday season. They started printing for Christmas in August. She should go downstairs and get to work. His hair fell against his pale skin, the black curls of an little Italianate god. He closed his eyes and bundled the quilt a little under his chin. She watched him, amazed at the feeling in her breast. How could anyone not love, not delight in this kind of connection? It had often been brought home to her, how, when she had loved men, she had loved them with the same singlemindedness, the same complete devotion. It was misplaced in the men, and certainly not reciprocal. Her nose tingled. She rubbed it. This was not the time to think of love or men. Never again. The boy opened his mouth and uttered half a word. She leaned over, kissed his forehead and slipped quietly from the room.
Where was Walter tonight?
* * *
The championship crept closer, and it was the talk of the pool circuit. Even Lou was excited, and it was being held at her competitor's establishment. There hadn't been enough interest in billiards, even statewide, to have a wing for that, so they talked her into entering in the nine-ball division.
"Damn, I hate to go down there," Lou said. "Hate to give that son of a buck my money, but I'm actually thinking of closing early Friday and Saturday. Last year it was like a ghost town in here."
"Really?" She put her grilled cheese sandwich back on the plate and wiped her mouth with the paper napkin. The boy wasn't there when she got in. She settled for lunch instead, watching the door for his arrival, like a puppy waiting for her boy to come home. It was an odd, uncomfortably comfortable feeling. She had grown used to him.
"You're going to play, aren't you?" Lou asked.
"I paid the entrance fee last week," Hilde answered. "I wouldn't have, except I qualified because I came in third in the county last year."
"You're in the championship?" A man in his mid-twenties turned from his plate and glanced at her. He was new to her. But then, she'd only been coming here for a few months, since her relationship with George, a perennial at Shots, had gone down in flames. He would, of course, be there, and she loathed the thought of seeing him. There were worse things in the world.
"Well, they took my money..." she answered, a little humbly.
"Cool," he said. "You play a lot?"
"Hm." She took another bite. "Not as much as I should for this sort of thing. You?"
"Once in a while." He leaned back and grinned at Lou. "I have other business here." Lou beamed at the man indulgently, then looked at Hilde and rolled her eyes. Hilde snickered a little. The man slid his plate down the bar and moved to the seat next to her. If she had been in a regular bar, she would have thought he was trying to hit on her, but this was different. It was daytime, and this was a pool hall, not really a bar. He put his hand out.
"Max," he said. Nobody had last names. "Everybody calls me Pencil, though."
"Why is that?" she asked, lightly shaking his hand and dropping it. "I dunno," he shrugged. He wiped his hands on a napkin, rolled it up and dropped it on the plate. "Lou, that was damned fine. I'll have to marry you someday."
She scoffed. "You and who else?"
"I'm enough for you," he said, grabbing his belt and swaggering a little. He turned back to Hilde. "Wanna play?"
"I was kind of waiting..." she began, but it was silly. "Sure," she said. He set up the table and she made the break. It was a quick game. He wasn't very good, but he got some good shots in. Meanwhile, he told her stories, no doubt largely apocryphal. He had played some greats in Chicago. He was no dummy though that just shot pool, he would have her know. He almost had a degree in E.E.
"Electrical Engineering. But I flunked Spanish III. Never got back to it. The teacher was an asshole."
"You mean, you're only a few credits from a degree?"
"Yeh. But I don't need it. I make good money."
"What do you do?"
"I'm in the pharmaceutical business."
"Really?" she said with a degree of amazement. She had worked at a clinic a few years back. Pharmaceutical company reps were in and out of the place all the time, and they were slick. Even in years when most college-age men barely managed to comb their hair, these guys were in three piece suits, silk ties and Florsheim shoes. A particularly nice looking one came to her office shortly after lunch one day, opened his case and fumbled in it. "Close your eyes and hold out your hand," he said. He was in there several times a month, a great tease and a greater flirt. She rested her elbow on the wood laminate top of the metal desk and closed her eyes, fingers upturned. He dropped something soft and round in her hand.
"Open 'em," he said. She looked down. It was just a soft round ball, white, almost pearlescent. "Know what that is?"
She shook her head. "Well, maybe you'd recognize it if there were two of them," he said slyly. He pulled another one, identical to the first, from a small a plastic bag and dropped it into her hand. She stared at them both lying in the palm of her hand. "Now?"
She shook her head again. He laughed. "They're prophylactic balls."
Her brow furrowed. "Of course they're balls."
He leaned forward, almost brushing her hair with his lips. "Testicles, Hilde. They're testicles."
"What?" her reaction was explosive. She jumped up from the rolling chair and dropped them on the desk.
"Ow," he said. "Boy, I'm not asking you out, if that's the way you treat a guy..."
She flailed her hand at him. "You and your balls? Out of here.
That was in the heyday of reps. The administration travelled extensively on kickbacks from the companies for prescribing meds--usually to conferences with no substance, and always to places like New Orleans, Las Vegas, Antiqua, free of charge. The secretaries and managers cleaned up on lunches and samples. "We'd probably prescribe the junk anyway," was the official way of keeping everybody satisfied. But they wrote scripts for preferred companies much more than for anyone else. In the end, it was all the same anyhow. About eighty-five percent of the people they saw would get well whether or not they prescribed the latest designer pharmaceutical or a mustard and hyssop poultice. Finally, someone blew the whistle and there were no more vacations, no more vacations, no more calendars, not even coffee mugs. They were allowed to take not so much as an embossed pen with the company name on it, though the men usually managed to leave notepads and writing implements behind when they left.
This man didn't fit the mold. Maybe he was on vacation.
"Are you really?"
"Yeh," he grinned again and moved around the table. "Hey. You smoke?"
"Not a bit."
"Not at all."
He grunted, a little crestfallen. She undid her cue. "I have to get back to work."
"Where do you work?"
"Not far from here. At a printing company."
"Yeh? I'm waiting for someone, or I'd walk with you."
"Thanks," she said, pulling out her wallet.
"Don't worry about it. On me," he grinned. He had big teeth, and questionable oral hygiene. She nodded. "Next time," he said.
* * *
The closer the date for the championship came, the more unnerved she was. She was no competitor. This was not her kind of thing. But she was caught up in the juggernaut, unable to jump off. It would require more time practicing, and that meant going at times other than noon three times a week. On Saturday afternoon, she came in to Lou's. The place was far more crowded than on a regular weekday, a little smokey, and she had to wait for a table. There were a lot of men in their mid-twenties, some in their thirties. Almost no one was older. There weren't many teenagers either, only one college-age boy with a girl. He was trying to teach her to play, which really meant that he was finding ways to touch her, lean over her back and adjust the cue, put his hand over hers to stroke through.
She sat down at the bar. Lou brought her a cup of coffee. Pencil had been sitting at a table under the pay phone. He got up and came over.
"Hi." He sat down.
"Hello," she said.
"Lou, gimme a Bud."
"Coming right up," Lou pulled the tap, filled the glass and set it in front of him. He lit a cigarette and drew long on it. "You see in the paper where..."
She smiled a little. It was how all their conversations started. He was bright, well-informed about politics and current events. He was prone toward a conspiracy-theory of political analysis, but it wasn't the most outrageous case she'd ever seen.
From the back, she saw a little burst of activity, and the thin boy slipped up next to her, bearing a cue like young boy with a staff among the sheepflocks, the beautiful Paris before three goddesses ruined history with their squabling. "Hey. Lady."
"Hey, Walter. Where have you been?"
He turned toward the tables, resting his elbows against the counter, bending around the barstool beside him.
"Around," he glanced at her. There was a bruise on the side of his face, near his chin. She made a little gesture at her own face.
He looked back toward the back of the hall. "Ran into something."
"Yeh," Pencil laughed. "A fist."
The boy glared. "That's not true," he said. "It was just..."
"You alright?" she asked softly.
"Yeh." He pushed away from the counter. "I think this asshole's about finished shooting." He crowed over the sound of the other players. "You scratch?" There was a muffled reply. "Man, he scratches so much, he must have fleas." He grinned at Pencil. Pencil grinned back.
She gestured to the table. "You doing better with that?"
"Good." He started away. She turned to Pencil. "Do you know what happened?"
"Kid's a shit. He's got no sense."
"He's very young," she said, almost apologetically.
"Well, then, he shouldn't play with the big boys, should he?"
"So, you know somebody hit him?"
She looked back at him, leaning over the table. He pushed the cue too hard against the balls and they scattered in all directions. One went in.
"That's slop," the man he was playing yelled.
"Slop counts," he shouted back. "It does." He charged over to where Hilde was sitting. "Slop counts in eightball doesn't it?"
"In eightball, up to the last shot," she said. "But not in nineball."
"There," he said triumphantly. He grinned at her. "Thanks."
"Nothing to it. It counts. I don't make up the rules." She shook her head. He sped back to the table.
"What do you know about him?" she asked.
"Not a lot. I put him up for a while after he got here. He does odd jobs for me."
"That's nice of you."
"It is, isn't it?" he glowed a little with pride. "I know I look a little rough," he confided. "But basically, I'm a good guy."
"I'm glad," she said, relieved someone was looking after the boy. "Listen, it looks like it's going to be a while before there's a table open. I'll come back later." She rose, paid the bill and looked to the back. The boy came forward, adding a few bills to the wad in his hand.
"Yeh. You want a game?"
"No. I have to go. I've been here an hour already," she said.
"You ought to play me. I'd lose and then the other guys would think I was no good. I mean, losing to a woman and all..."
"Shame on you," she chided. "On about five different levels."
"I didn't mean it," he followed her to the door. "I mean, for a woman, you're really good, but they don't know that..."
"Bye, Walter. See you..."
* * *
She arranged for Friday off and sent the kids to her mother's for the weekend. By ten, she was beginning to get seriously nervous. She dressed carefully, in black trousers and a long jacket with an immaculate frilly white shirt. There was a bolero jacket that would have been splendid with this outfit, but they were going to be looking at her butt enough. There was no reason to give them provocation. A layer of jacket between the eyes and her seat seemed prudent.
She got stuck on the shoes, though, whether to wear the ones with the lower or the higher heels. The higher heels made her look more elegant, but she was more used to shooting in shorter ones. She put on the one pair, took them off, tried the other, switched back and forth several times. Finally, she addressed the mirror, in the higher heels and made last minute adjustments to her hair. Her makeup was perfect. In fact, everything was perfect, all the appurtenances of her appearance--the makeup, clothing, accessories. It was only her that seemed inadequate in the mirror.
It was odd to be dressing as if for a date or a performance this early in the day, but it was a performance. What if he was there? She swallowed hard. One last check. How had she let herself get talked into this? She picked up her purse and cuebag and started out of the house. The shoes. She unlocked the apartment, went back in, switched shoes again, disgusted with her inability to make even so simple a decision as what shoes to wear. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. She was naturally shy. That was all. Being on display was onerous.
He might be there. Not for the women's, she thought. Not on Friday afternoon. He'd come later, for men's nineball.
She got in the car and drove to the pool hall. "Thy will be done," she prayed. She couldn't pray to win. That would be too egotistical. She hadn't been to Shots in months. There were men at the bar already. This was the place the older men went, more established men. At Lou's, in the basement under a Mexican restaurant, there were mostly overgrown delinquents. Here at Shots, the delinquents were there, but so were the businessmen and professionals, men who played golf on weekday afternoons when they weren't in the pool hall. They greeted her jovially. "Hey, the Empress," H. yelled, raising his glass in mock salute. She spread her hands and bowed elegantly.
"You gonna tear it up today?"
"I don't think so," she said. "Just here to play some pool."
"You haven't been in in a while."
"I haven't, have I?" she admitted. "I've been going to Lou's."
There was a round of "Traitor," from the men.
"Enough," she chided. There was an easel nearby with a large posterboard and lines diagramming the double-elimination sequence. "Am I on here yet?" She scanned down the names.
"Not yet." There were a lot more women there than usual. Six of the ten tables were being used for free practice for the contestants, and she started over to one. H. followed her with his beer.
"So," he said. "How you been?"
"Pretty good. You?"
"Can't complain. My son got a D.W.I..."
"You didn't tell him not to drive drunk?" she snorted, straightening up and approaching the next shot. She scratched.
"Well, I told him not to get caught. Heard a joke the other day. There's these two guys going doing the street and they see this dog lickin' his balls, and the first guy says,"
"I know this one," she raised her hand.
"Would you stop Pavarotti in the middle of an aria just because you'd already heard it?"
"If you were Pavarotti, my friend..."
The manager came out from behind the bar. "Ladies, we're going to get started now. Gather round."
The owner swung out of the back room. "Good to see you all here," he said. He was a tall, gaunt man with an unruly shock of black hair. "Everybody understand double elimination?"
The women nodded. It was an odd assortment. There were several with buzz cuts, wearing baggy khaki or olive drab shorts and loose tops. A few looked like trailer court trash, one in a tight, vertically striped yellow and brown shell and faded jeans. Hilde sized them up and dismissed all concerns. They'd come from outlying areas, winners and runners up in other county championships, from rural counties where they played at truck stops for beers. There were only a few to worry about. One was a blonde with big Farrah Fawcett style curls. She was in tight red slacks, a bolero jacket, scoop-neck shell that revealed far too much cleavage and six-inch heels with sequins down the spine. Too much for afternoon. Hilde had to smile a little. There were men were watching her carefully as she tossed her hair and simpered.
The rules droned on and on. The red woman slipped over beside her. "You're Hilde, aren't you?"
"Yes," she said cautiously.
The woman offered her hand. The overblown rings on her fingers were probably cubic zirconium. Hilde hoped, at least. "I'm Sophie Majorson."
"Oh, God. The Sophie Majorson?"
"Yep." She'd been on television, shooting with some of the best. She generally did exhibitions on T.V., rarely competed.
"It'll be an honor losing to you," Hilde said graciously.
"Thanks," she whispered back.
"Why are you in this tournament? You don't live in Missouri, do you?"
"I have a house up in St. Louis now, so technically I can. I travel most of the time. I mostly play in New Jersey and Florida. I got married last summer to a guy from St. Louis, though."
"Yes." She flashed the engagement and wedding set. It wasn't zirconium, and Hilde felt a little faint. "Nice guy."
"I see," she said. "Congratulations."
"Thanks. I watched you shoot on the practice tables. We'll end up in the end. These other girls don't know a cueball from a douchwad." She gave a knowing wink and moved away.
It was over. There was nothing more to do except let the balls roll. It might be better to just throw the first games and be done with it. But there was something of honor at stake. H. came up. "Well?"
"I'm sunk," she said.
"Don't worry about it. Hey, will you be around this evening?"
"I don't know, why?"
"Because I want to put a bet on the eightball tournament, but I have to go out of town. Pager went off, and I have to go. There's some sort of outage at the capital. It's a bunch of shit. I only have four years 'til retirement. Will you take the money for me?"
She shook her head. "I don't like gambling. You know that, H."
"I know. But this isn't gambling. Just give the money to Montie when he comes in. He'll know what to do."
"When's he coming in?" She loathed Montie.
"Later." He pulled out a roll of bills and pulled some off. He slipped them into her hand. "Don't lose it."
She looked down. Five hundred.
"Oh, God, H..."
"I have to go."
"I can't do this," she started to follow him. "H., really. I can't..."
"Listen, you're the only one I can trust here. Win and I'll give you a nice cut. Have a good time. It's not really like you're going to be doing the gambling. You're acting as my agent. So enjoy. I have to go, sweetie. I'll be back tomorrow."
"Ladies, places," the owner gestured inclusively and there was a rush of movement. H. slipped through the employee exit and was gone. Dumbfounded, she stuck the money into the pocket of her jacket. Her first opponent was a trailer court girl. They shook hands and addressed the table. She won the flip and broke. There wasn't much to it. They shook hands at the end of the game, and the manager wrote her name in the next slot. Time passed. They had to wait for the full round to finish before going on to the next. She nervously fingered the money in her pocket. Damn H. They were all like that, though. Of course, there was something flattering about being trusted over all the others he knew, and she was not completely put out by it.
The owner came up between the second and third rounds. "Hilde," he said. "How you been?"
"Good, Mack. Thanks. I've been good."
"We miss you in here. You always gave the place a little class. A little extra class," he said. "I give the place class."
"I miss coming here." She hesitated. "Does George still come around?'
"Oh, yeh. He'll be in later. I don't know about this afternoon."
"Is he still dating that redhead?"
"Why?" he asked cautiously.
"I think he broke it off with her."
"Too bad. They were so cute together," she sniped.
"You don't seem like the bitter type," he said. "Besides, he speaks very well of you."
"Does he now?"
There was a pause. "How's your wife?"
"Good. She'll be in later."
"Mack, H. gave me money to put a bet down for him."
"Five hundred." It was an incomprehensible amount to risk on nothing. "He wanted me to put a bet down on the games tonight. Will you take it over for me?"
"Not me. He gave it to you."
"I know, but..."
"You'll be fine. It'll be an adventure for you. Besides, you'll want to stick around tonight. I've got a surprise. There's a fellow coming up from Memphis. A real sharp kid. You probably heard of him. Dustin Cassell. He's fourteen."
"Is he in the tournament? I thought that was only for eighteen or older."
"Not in the tournament. Afterwards. In the back room. That's when everything will really start cookin'. Stick around."
"Mack, the frier just went out."
"What?" he turned irritably on the bearer of bad tidings, a college boy who worked the grill.
"Just went out. We were making fries and had just dropped a fish and the red light went out. I checked the plugs."
"Crap," he said. "This isn't the time. See ya, Hilde."
She nodded and watched him disappear behind the counter.
* * *
About four thirty, she went out and walked up and down the street. Athens wasn't a bad little place. It had a miserably small downtown section, only about ten blocks either way. She'd come from St. Louis and it had taken a long time to get used to such a small downtown and the absence of big buildings. She paced up and down in front of the old storefronts, looked at the stained glass in the windows of the church across the street, looked at the passersby.
It would be six before the final, and she was getting nervous. It wasn't so much playing the beautiful and formidable Sophie. It was the waiting, the anticipation of playing the beautiful and formidable Sophie. Sophie was a showman. She wouldn't give a damn about the feelings of her opponent. She would use Hilde as a foil for looking even better than she did already. But it was a brassy looking good, like a showgirl. She turned at the alley and came back. There were several men from the poolhall milling around outside the door. Jack, the chief accountant from the First Bank of Athens, turned to her. "Hey, Hilde," he said. "Long time, no see."
"I've been around," she smiled. "Just not around here."
"You know everybody here, I think," Jack said graciously. She nodded. There was P., the air traffic controller, and F., who was rental agent for a mall in another city. His daughter lived in Athens and he came up to visit her every so often and never missed a tournament. Hilde looked up at the only one of the men she didn't know. "Except him."
"I don't think we've met." His eyes were deep, intense, and she blushed for no reason.
"Carl Sebastian," he put his hand out toward her. "So you're Hilde."
"Yes." She nodded. He was a crack shot, legendary in the city. Men would come back and talk about how they had barely missed playing him. He was in his early forties, divorced three or four times.
"So you're Carl Sebastian," she said. She watched her hand disappear into his. It was easily twice the size of hers, thick boned and firm. It was hard to consider oneself equal to men when they were so huge by comparison. A man like that could change a lightbulb without getting a chair to stand on. She had to move furniture and make a fifteen minute ordeal out of it.
"Hm," he purred, approvingly. She blushed completely, and covered her face, burying it against Jack's shoulder. They all laughed.
"Now, Carl. She's a nice girl. Don't start that crap with her," P scoffed.
"We were just going to get some dinner," Andy Becket gestured toward her. "Come on. We haven't seen you in forever. We've got a lot to catch up on."
"I play at six," she said limply.
"Not on an empty stomach," Carl purred again. He had soft-looking black hair. He was huge, too, at least six five, built like the kind of man that went out of style at the turn of the century, barrel-chested. He was not one of the kind that was apologetic about his size either, and she felt very small next to him. But she was hungry.
"Sure," she said finally.
"Hilde isn't like regular women," Jack laughed. "Just one of the guys."
"Pity," Carl said, musing. "I wonder if it's true."
"What?" she asked, almost dumbly.
"Are you just like one of the guys?" They walked toward the restaurant. He took her elbow gently, and she turned toward him, looking up into his face. He smiled down at her, and something melted inside.
"I..." This was stupid. She was not interested in another pool player. What could he offer her? They weren't the kind that settled down, married, stayed in one place. And even if they did, she would end up married to a pool player. "Yes. I am. Just like." She affected a defiant tone. She didn't want to be treated like fluff, and he was negotiating her into a fluff role.
"I'd like to put that to the test," he said softly. They have to move fast, these travelling men.
"Enough out of you," she said, goodnaturedly. Dinner was pleasant enough. Carl ate shrimp and steak and the men drank entirely too much and told profoundly stupid jokes. She enjoyed the company, though. Men are different than women. Dining with a well mannered man is far and away more interesting than with a woman. Men have much more renaissance, more global interests, generally more expertise in some area, and are willing to take an opposing position for the purpose of a good debate. They have more interesting things, do more interesting things. The food was good, the conversation excellent, and no one treated her with anything but the utmost respect.
Still, by the time the men paid the check, even though she offered money for the bill or the tip, she felt a certain warmth toward Carl. It was easy to be attracted to a man, easy to think him likeable. She knew better, and certainly knew better than to cultivate a relationship in the same place twice. Like gardening, it would be stupid to plant in the same patch, and she'd already gotten one man out of Shots.
"Thanks, guys," she said. "You coming back in?"
Jack and Andy begged off. "Have to check in at least with the little woman," Jack said. "We'll be back later this evening." They stopped at a car along the side of the street. "Andy, I'll give you a ride to the garage?"
They got into the car and pulled away from the curb. Carl looked at her intently. "You've got to be the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in this town."
"It's a small town," she retorted. "There aren't many women. And if you just came in for the tournament, you've seen about ten woman altogether."
He purred, moved like a snake charmer. "I mean it. I like you. You're bright, and you're very..."
Lou came up the street toward her, with Pencil in tow, the boy at their heels. "Hey, guys," she said, relieved.
"How are you doing? Aren't you supposed to be at Shots?"
"Yeh. But I took a little break. I won't play again until six and then that's it for me. Sophie Majorson came into town for this."
Lou laughed a little. "Oh, God. No wonder you're out here."
"It's not that big a thing," she said. "Are you coming here?"
"Yeh." Lou looked up at Carl.
"This is Carl Sebastian. You know of him, no doubt."
"I do," Lou said reverentially. The other two looked dubious. Pencil merely looked skeptical. The boy looked peeved. Together they walked to the front foyer of Shots. Carl opened the door, his arm high over her head, and motioned her in under it, a flank-open gesture of trust. The boy grabbed her forearm. "Just a minute," he said. Carl shrugged and the others entered. There was a college boy sitting on a barstool by the door. "There's a cover tonight. Five," he said. "Not for you Mr. Sebastian," he added politely.
"I would hope not. I'm bringing your boss a lot of money tonight. I'd think he'd let me in free." Lou fussed in her pocket, as did Pencil. The boy caught sight of Walter.
"You're trouble. Forget it."
"I just want to watch. She's a friend of mine." He still had hold of Hilde's arm.
"Forget it. Boss said so."
"Me specifically?" he asked irritably.
"Yeh. You were in here, and he said, 'Don't let that shit in here again.' Take a hike."
"Fuck." The boy turned toward the street. Carl was standing close to Hilde. "Fuck you."
"Hey, wanna..." The boy started up off the stool.
"Boys, enough," Hilde said quickly. Almost simultaneously, Carl held his hand up to the college boy and muttered something soothing.
"It's okay," she leaned out the door to the boy. "I'm sorry. I'll see you tomorrow."
"That asshole. Hey, look. I gotta tell you something."
"Come here," he motioned her toward the parking meters. She followed.
"What is it?"
"That Carl what's-his-face. He wants to screw you," he said, affronted.
"Shhh. I don't think so. We just met and he's leaving Sunday. He's just friendly."
"Yeh. I'd say. If you don't care, then I sure as hell don't care. I just didn't think you were that type."
"I do care. And, if it was any of your business, I would tell you I don't care what he wants, because I'm not sleeping with him. If it was any of your business." She glowed indulgently at him. What boy wants his surrogate mom sleeping with a pool shark? "I have to go in now. Wish me luck. Take care."
"Whatever," he turned, leaned against the parking meter and stuck his hands in his pockets, crossing his feet and affecting a tough look.
She went into the pool hall. The cigarette smoke was so thick now that it hung in a great cloud that began no more than six feet above the floor. She went to the easel with the poster of the elimination sequence. She was up next, with Sophie. The red-clad blonde opened her case and pulled out the pieces of her cue. She put it together quickly, gold inlay flashing under the low-suspended table lights.
"You ready?" she asked almost jovial grimness.
"Ready," Hilde answered. They shook hands quickly.
The other tables were closed now, even for practice. The owner announced their names. There was applause and whistles for Sophie who preened, raised her cue over her head and turned, posing, while flashes went off. The reporters had showed up.
"And, in this corner," the owner laughed. "Our home town favorite, Hilde Rogner. A hand for Hilde, please." The locals needed no encouragement. She looked around the room at the faces and glowed. In truth, it was a good feeling. She knew most of the men there, and a lot of the women, by their associations with the men. They weren't players, they were dates and wives and live-ins. She put her hand humbly on her chest, bowed a little, as the boss came up to the table and threw the coin upwards.
It rotated a few times in air.
"Heads," Sophie got it out first. The coin landed on the felt.
"Heads it is. Make your break, and good luck to you both." He stepped backwards away from the table. "Everyone, please, complete silence." The room grew hush and even the radio cut off mid-tune.
Hilde took her cue and leaned against the adjacent table. With a grand flourish, Sophie leaned over, her breasts pouring eye-poppingly close to the top of her blouse, bulging as she lined up her shots. There were appreciative groans from some of the men. She looked good no matter what side of the table one was on. Hilde burned with shame. Carl moved around in a wide circle and came up behind her.
"Don't let her intimidate you."
"I'm not intimidated. She's just very good. And pretty."
"A little overstated. I like a subtle, more feminine woman."
"Wait a minute," Hilde scoffed. "She's about as feminine as they come. Her femininity is practically spilling out on the table."
"That's not feminine. That's just her tits. A fine woman is a lot more than overstated tits. Besides, I have it on best authority, she bought them on a two-year payment plan." She looked up into his face. He raised his eyebrows and tucked his chin down in a knowing way. There was a certain soft gentleness about his eyes, and it was fetching. He could have been some hero from a regency romance novel. She loathed them, but he could have played the part.
Sophie was practically dancing around the table now, twirling dramatically to make her shots. "See, I watched you shoot," Carl continued in a whisper. "You're very elegant. Not a movement wasted. I like that." He shouldn't be talking at all, but no one was going to tell Carl Sebastian that he should be quiet.
"Hey, sister," Sophie sang out, pointing the leather tip of her cue at Hilde. "I'm going to clean the table now. Won't be anything left for you." The audience laughed.
"That's fine by me. Just let me mop up at the end. Maybe leave me the nine?"
"No way," she laughed. Three more balls and the nine was the only thing left.
"I'm not even going to get one shot," Hilde said, disappointed. She leaned heavily against the other table. Carl's shoulder was there, suddenly, touching hers. There was no doubt that under his dark shirt were perfectly modelled muscles, not a body builder's musculature, but the kind a healthy, reasonably active man seems to develop naturally. She hadn't sunk her fingers into the shoulders of a man in a long time. The slight touch was enough to make her remember, and she felt a little queasy. She looked up into his face, but didn't move away.
There was an explosion of applause and Sophie pranced around the table, pumping her cue in the air. "Dearest Lord Jesus, let me take this well," Hilde prayed. She pushed away from the table, came forward, bowing a little and offered her hand. "That was some fine shooting," she said graciously. She didn't feel gracious but she'd heard the men say that sort of thing hundreds of time. Maybe they didn't feel gracious either.
"Thanks, honey," Sophie crowed. They were tallying points behind the bar. When the results were in Sophie walked away with the biggest trophy and a thousand dollars. She kissed the oversized cardstock check. Another woman, one of the buzz cuts, pulled into second place on account of points. Because Hilde hadn't managed to get in even a shot on the last game, and two of her games were close calls, she came in third. It was still a nice trophy, but only fifty dollars. She and Sophie posed shaking hands for the local papers, for a woman's sports magazine and a small regional pool playing publication.
She unfastened her cue and put it back in the case.
"Come on, don't feel bad," Carl said gently, setting his sweating beer on the bar. "Look, let's get out here. Go someplace with a little atmosphere. Like oxygen." He smiled at her, put his hand gently out toward her hip.
"I have to stay here," she said. "I promised a friend I'd put a bet down for him."
"Oh," he said significantly. "A friend, huh?"
"Not that kind."
Lou came up. "Tough break, Hilde."
"Yeh. Not a shot."
"She had a nice combination on the seven, though."
"Hey, Hilde. The owner's fry vat has gone down. I told him I'd go back to my place and make a couple hundred pounds of fries. They can microwave 'em here throughout the night." Lou looked at her expectantly.
"Lou," she said, surprised. "That was very kind of you."
"Kind, hell. He's paying the full rate for them. He'll hate paying but they'll riot if there aren't fries. Come on and help me."
They were just starting the men's eightball. It would be hours before anything significant happened. In a way, she wanted to stay there, talk to Carl. He was interesting, charming, but Lou had sent home the help. Besides, she was sick of being there, the noise of the people and the clacking balls and the music blaring from the stereo between matches. The smoke was insufferable. It wasn't the usual sedate pool room, but more like some south of the border Carnival.
"Okay," she said. "Carl, I'll see you later."
"Sure, babe," he purred.
They walked outside and she gulped the cool fresh air. It tastes funny. "Well, he's hot," Lou said.
"If I was your age and single...mmm. What I could do with that."
"I don't think he'd want to stick around."
"You and your sticking around. I'm an old woman. There's more to life than sticking around."
"What are you? About forty."
"Forty three. And at my age, I can tell you there's a lot to be said for a big piece of man that'll go away when you want him to."
"Lou," she chided. "You just say that."
"Yeh, because it's true."
"You love your husband."
"I guess. But he's sure a pain in the ass. And underfoot constantly. No. I'm convinced, you should get what you can and then dump 'em. They're no good."
They dropped fries together for an hour or so, sending Pencil back and forth with the batches. Finally, around nine, they stopped, exhausted and hot.
"I've eaten so many fries, I'm going to be sick," Hilde groaned.
"They're good for you. Give you a nice complexion, little waist and whistle-clean arteries." Lou patted her capacious belly and laughed.
She looked at her watch. "I've got to get going. I'm supposed to put a bet down for a guy, and then I'm for home. It's been a long rough day."
She walked back to Shots. It was even more crowded, even more smoky. She searched through the crowd. "Where's Mack?"
"In back. Go on through," the boy said.
She found him. "Hey, Mack, got enough fries?"
"Yeh. I think we'll be fine. Nobody seems to know or care they're waved."
"Good. About this money. What am I supposed to do with it?"
"The money H. gave me to bet..."
"Who do you want to bet on?"
"I don't know."
"Carl Sebastian, I'd think. Unless you're going for cards. There's that boy I told you about. Dustin Cassell. But he won't get going until later. Carl'll be back in a few minutes. He's been playing in the back for about an hour."
"He's not a contestant?"
They laughed. "Honey, he doesn't compete. He's a shark. He's here for the gambling. The contest only brings in the suckers. The real action is behind the Employees Only door."
"Where is he now?" she asked, looking around through the office area into the back room.
"I don't know."
"He's gettin' a blow job from Sophia Majorson in his car." The fry cook laughed a little maliciously. Her jaw dropped. "It's a vintage Cadillac convertible."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen it. When he pulled into town."
"Not about the car. About the other..."
"He asked. I heard him. She said yes. They went out together."
"That's awful," she said.
"I know," Mack said. "She bites." The men around howled with laughter. She felt herself go scarlet.
"Really," she said, offended. "You wouldn't talk about me that way, would you?" she asked.
"No, of course not," Mack said. There was a pause. She nodded. It was a good thing they didn't think of her like that. "You don't bite," he exploded, laughing uproariously. She gasped, incredulous and waved them away.
"You boys are disgusting." She paused. "What about the money?"
"Put half on Carl, half on the kid."
"Aren't they going to be playing against each other?"
"They'll just play challengers. This isn't about skill. It's about money."
Carl came in a few minutes later. He was alone. Everyone smirked. He looked a little tired. He came up alongside her, close, and reached past her for one of the unopened beer bottles on the table. "Bottle opener?"
Mack tossed one to him. He swept the cap off the beer, and took a swig. He turned his eyes tenderly toward her.
"Pretty little thing." He reached a finger out and stroked the side of her hand. She mechanically smiled a little, not wanting to seem rude, but moved away.
"Where's Sophie?" one of the boys asked.
"Oh, her husband just got here. We met him coming back from the parking garage. They started back to St. Louis already." He sounded a little self-conscious but he looked at her warmly again. Had he or hadn't he been out in the car with Sophie? She couldn't detect Sophie's perfume on him or the scents of excitement, but then, he might be subtler or have cleaned up. There was no way to know what had happened.
"Listen, you. You watch me play, alright? Bring me luck." Surely he hadn't done anything. How could he have made love to a woman, even to the extent of having that sort of contact, and be chasing another with such romantic fervor fifteen minutes later?
"Sure," she said warily. "Mack, what about this money?" She pulled it out of the pocket and waved it at him.
"I'll show you who to give it to. Come on." He motioned to her and she followed him through the back room and up a rickety flight of stairs. "Watch your step," he said, turning back at the landing. Carl came up behind, rattling the whole stairwell with his bulk, taking the steps two by two. He caught up with her.
"You have money?" he asked.
"A little. It's not mine."
"Give it. I'll turn it into five thousand by morning." He reached out and tugged on it. She was reluctant to let it go. His hand covered the bills, covered her fingers. He closed them over hers, applying the slightest upward pressure.
He slipped up to the same step with her, towering over her, a presence, a wall of absolute certainty, of oblique desire. He postured over her. It was a demonstration of his masculinity. She wilted a little. In truth, she was susceptible to masculinity. She had been alone for six months, and when he looked at her, she ached.
She gave a furtive look up toward the room. Mack had disappeared through the door. Without getting out of his grip she stepped up three steps. He pulled at her gently, and she turned to him. They were at eye-level now, on the precarious stairs.
"Hilde," he whispered. "Beautiful Hilde." He swept his hand behind her back, down the curve of it. She gasped, and his mouth was against hers in an instant. He wanted her. There was no Sophie. The other hand spanned her hip, fingertips pressed so close to the valley between her buttocks it was alarming. He pulled her pelvis against his chest, firm and tight-boned in the main, soft and yielding in the solar plexus. She knew men's bodies, knew the course they ran, downward into something too exquisite for description. He smelled of expensive cologne, breath mints and liquor. The soft tip of his tongue slipped easily between her lips and her pelvic floor instantly, unbidden, abandoned its normal highstrung tightness. Her hands went to his hair and she gripped it above the ears, at the back, moaned without meaning to. His tongue was more aggressive now, more insistent, aroused, arousing. But it was a rough texture, a habitual drunk's tongue. She gasped for air, he set his cheek against her breastbone, clutched her tight to him. "Oh, god," she said, half-prayer. She hadn't been kissed in six months, and she had resolved to live a moral life in the wake of the last disaster. Guilt washed over her with a rush of sickening adrenalin.
"Break it up," Mack said suddenly. "You two coming up here or not? Shoemaker wants a game with you, Carl. Get your ass up here and do it, will you?" Carl looked at her with eyes as dark as eternity. He stroked her gently.
"You, I will settle with later," he said softly. The money slipped from her fingers and he approached again as if he was going to kiss her. Instinctively her eyes fluttered closed, but he passed her on the stairs and entered the room. Mack motioned her up. She started to enter the room, but he touched her arm.
"Don't be stupid, Hilde. He isn't for you."
"He's a travelling pool shark. A hustler. He'll hustle you, too. Didn't you hear the boy? He just got a blow job from a married woman. He can talk anyone into anything. I don't want to have to listen to you weeping and wailing for six months over this one."
"Thanks, Mack," she said. "Sorry. It just crept up on me."
"He just crept up on you. Go on. Keep your mouth shut, though. These guys are high rollers. Play your cards right, and Carl'll look like an Esso gasjockey. There's a room full of them. Some are local color. Do your best and you might find one to keep. But what's going on here is strictly illegal, you understand."
"So don't tell anyone. I'm only letting you come in because I trust you, alright?"
"Thanks, Mack," she said, a little dubious of the honor. He motioned her in.
The room was small, the kitchenette of the upstairs apartment where Mack and his wife lived when they first got the place. There was an old 1970s-style formica table, and more smoke. A portly man, with slicked back too-black greasy looking hair filled up one long side of the table. His eyebrows were almost completely grey. He glanced up over the cards, appraised her. He looked a little like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. His lips turned up slowly.
Carl pulled a chair out and sat down. "What's the game, boys?" He rubbed his hands together.
"Five card stud." Unbidden, one of the college boys opened a bottle of beer and put it in front of Carl. Another one leaned forward and asked Orson if he wanted anything else. She quickly realized a boy had been assigned to each of the five men at the table, like page boys serving nobility. Orson shook his head, gestured at her with his cigar and said something. There were two trashy-looking girls, one in shorts, the other in a miniskirt, leaning against the sink. Nobody wore miniskirts anymore. Carl reached up over his head. "Come here, sweetie," he said. She glanced at Mack. He shrugged. Carl grasped her hand and pulled her close, pulling her hand down his massive shoulder onto the soft padding of his chest. Her ring finger touched his nipple and she blanched, leaned over toward him. Her hair fell between his cheek and hers. "I'll just wait over here," she whispered.
"Stay. I want you near." Embarrassed, she straightened up and stood behind him. "Alright, boys. You're in trouble now. I've got this little girl's bankroll right here." He tapped his shirt pocket. "You have to let me win."
Orson glared at him a little and then looked up at her. He smiled coyly at her. She dropped her eyes, slowly withdrew her hand. The trollops at the sink eyed her malevolently, spoke behind their hands, giggled.
The dealer, one of the fry cooks, whipped the cards around the table. "Alright, gentlemen," he said.
"What's openers?" Carl asked.
"Jacks or better."
"Twos and one-eyed Jacks."
"Five hundred," the first man said. Three others put their bills on the table. Orson stared at Carl.
"See your five and raise you three."
Carl laughed, scoffing. "Make it an even thousand." They all threw in. She stared at the money. They weren't even playing with chips. It was money. Green money. That thousand would have paid all her expenses for the entire month, food included, with money left over for the beautiful fur-collared winter coat she lusted after.
By the time the hand was over, there were ten thousand dollars on the table. She began to feel edgy. The first man had a three jacks with one wild card, the second, two eights and two aces. The third, a pair of jacks. Orson and Carl stared across the table at each other. Orson laid his down first. Three kings.
"Epiphany," Carl said, with bravado. "Well, beginner's luck." He laid out his cards. A pair of aces and a pair of fives. He'd lost. For a moment she couldn't breathe. He looked up at her, smiled, leaned back and patted her bottom. "It's early," he whispered. "Don't worry."
Orson pulled the money to himself, gloating. He stood up. "I need a break. I've been at it since four. I'm getting root bound. Mack, get me a burger."
"Right away, Mr. Shoemaker."
"And Mack? Make it yourself." He turned back to the party. "Mack's the only one in this dump who can cook."
"Thank you, Mr. Shoemaker." Mack nodded and disappeared down the steps.
"Carl, how you been?" Shoemaker addressed himself to Carl.
"Good. Good," he said, leaning back.
"This your wife?" The fat man leered a little.
"Not yet," he said cheerfully, stroking her arm. "Who knows though?"
She smiled wanly.
"Then she's available." It was painful to watch a man as ugly as this try to disport himself as something desirable. But then, men have a distinct advantage over women in that regard. A truly repulsive man with money, prestige and power can easily attract even the most beautiful and desirable women. Flawed but equally situated women haven't a prayer. She opened her mouth to retort, but Carl jumped in ahead of her. "Not at all."
"Well, if you aren't married, she is. Listen, when you get tired of the small fry, swim over to this end of the pond. He'll be flat busted broke in no time. Daddy'll take care of you."
"Thank you," she said weakly, suddenly aware that she was in the wrong pool altogether. Nothing in her background had prepared her to be a gangster's moll, but she felt for all the world like a seriously overdressed one. The boys were bowing and scraping, the same boys who traded barbs and sometimes punches with the normal clientele, were acting like these men were sultans. The smoke was becoming oppressive, as was the company.
"Ten grand," Orson said deliciously, his eyes seriously bloodshot. "Lady, you think you can find another man who can make ten thousand in ten minutes?"
She felt, almost through osmosis, Carl's jaw tightening. "Are we here to play cards or what?" he said. The other men were ready to go. Orson shrugged and took his seat again, sighing heavily as he hit the chair, as if, with his bulk, even sitting down was a workout. Carl lost the second hand, as well. This time to one of the other men. The stakes hadn't gone as high, only to about six thousand. The third go-round was as bad as the first. Orson got it again. He had eighteen thousand dollars, at least, sitting in front of him in cash.
It was incomprehensible. She felt the blood pound in her neck. She had never even made eighteen thousand in a single year. Orson bit off the end of a cigar, and spit it onto the floor, like a character in a 1930s movie. He picked up a fifty, his eyes glued to her face, folded it in half and snapped his fingers. A boy stepped forward with a lighter and snapped the flame up on it. Orson stuck the cigar in his mouth, put the tip of the fifty in the flame and held it there until it was completely ignited. He brought it to the end of the cigar, closed his eyes and pulled. Grocery money, she thought. Four days of groceries. Half the electric bill for the month. Shoes for her and the children. He narrowed his eyes, smiled, dropped the burning bill into the ashtray and leaned back, pushing a stream of smoke upwards to join the rest of its kind near the ceiling. It was like something out of Guys and Dolls, and she was the missionary girl.
What if somebody pulled a gun? This was rougher company than she was accustomed to. The money was enormous, and nerves were raw. There was too much liquor. She feigned a smile of her own. "Excuse me," she said. "I'll go down and see if Mack needs any help." It was a stupid thing to say. Only Orson objected strenuously. Carl, distracted, only mumbled something. She went to the door and stepped out onto the landing, took a deep breath.
The stairwell wobbled but she hurried down it anyway. She went into the back office. "Mack, these people are nuts. Who's the guy that looks like Orson Welles?"
"That's Sidney Shoemaker. He owns a chain of liquor stores. It's a franchise but they all have different names. He owns three here, but you can't tell because when he took them over, he left them to seem like they were still owned by the mom-and-pops who had them originally. He's pretty much organized crime in Athens."
"Is there organized crime in Athens?"
He laughed. "There's organized crime everywhere. The Greeks used to have gambling covered here, but he took it over within the last ten years."
Mack's wife came in, wiping her hands on her jeans. "Hilde," she said, delighted.
"Millie." They embraced quickly.
"God, you're a sight for sore eyes. We've missed you," she said sympathetically.
"Well, that thing with George, you know."
Millie waved a towel at her. "Forget George, Hilde. Live your life. We miss you. Come to dinner..."
"I'd like that. I do miss you all."
"She defected to Lou's," Mack said accusingly.
Hilde sputtered. "It wasn't a defection, Mack. It was exile."
"Well, come back anyway. He doesn't come in much. Besides, he broke up with that bad dye-job he was dating. How long were you two together?"
"Whew. That's a long time to put up with George. I have something to show you. Come here." Millie motioned Hilde and she followed. They went into another of the back rooms. The crowd of bluejean and shorts-clad observers parted like the Red Sea revealing a boy at the table, cigarette hanging from his lips, white T-shirt, rolled jeans, James Dean-esque, lining up a shot. He brushed his hair from his eyes and lowered the cue. His arms were long between the joints, the soft mounding of muscles that presages the passage from thin, girlish arms to the massively constructed deltoids, triceps, biceps of manhood.
"Cute little bastard, isn't he?" Millie whispered.
"Yeh," Hilde answered. "Who is he?'
"That's the wunderkind, Dustin Cassell. Shoots like God. Watch." He made a triple combination, turned and high-fived the young man standing next to him. He smoothly stroked the remaining stripes into the pockets and called left corner for the eightball, pointing out and over the table with his cue. He turned with a whoop and hands went out to him. The winners took money from the losers. "Rack 'em," he crowed. "Who's next?"
It was moving toward midnight. "How long's he been here?"
"He and his cousins got here about eight. He's been at it about four hours."
"That's a long time."
He reached over and took a beer from one of the bystanders and slugged it back. Hilde looked carefully at him. He was shorter than her by a few inches, and his features were still rounded, a little stumpy round nose and rounded cheeks. There was no mistaking that he was a boy, not just a small man. "How old is he?"
"Fourteen," Millie said. "Scary isn't it?"
"Yes. Do his parents know he's here? I mean there are codes about kids performing in establishments that serve liquor, and this is..."
"I know. Yeh. I'm worried. If we get busted tonight, we're in deep. He's underage as hell, and they're gambling like crazy. It's the thing upstairs that unnerves me. Hilde, keep an eye on him, alright?"
"Sure, but what do you..."
"What?" he called over the table with no affectation whatsoever.
Millie took Hilde by the jacket and pulled her around the table. "Dustin, this is Hilde. She's an old friend of me and Mack. She'll take care of you, alright? You need anything, she's the one you talk to. O.K.?"
He appraised her blankly. "O.K." he shrugged. He leaned to the table, raised his foot and shot a long one. He missed.
"Shit," he came over and stood next to her, holding his cue between his hands like an old coonskin capped frontiersman holding his rifle in one of those Davy Crocket style lithos. "So. Come here often?" he turned and grinned at her.
"Not anymore. You?"
"First time," he said. "And I haven't come yet." He grinned again and danced back to the table. "Hey, what is this shit? I came to play pool and you leave me a table full of shit. I don't want your damned shit..."
But he manipulated the cue down between three tightly packed balls and managed a perfectly controlled shot. The cue ball jumped straight up and then landed several inches away. Two of the balls rolled to the rail. The third found the hole. He was jubilant. He sank the nineball and money went around the room. He returned to stand beside her. "Smoke," he said abruptly, and a college boy appeared with a pack of cigarettes. He took one and lit it. He turned to her. "You smoke?"
"I might as well, as much as I've breathed tonight."
"That's rich." He nodded. He took a long draw from the cigarette. There was no doubt, in all his affectations, he was monkeying the older toughs. Still, there was something endearing about it, like watching a seal balance a ball on its nose.
"You drove up from Memphis today?"
"Yeh. We skipped out after third hour and came on. It's a hell of a long drive. I got really sore. I hate riding in cars. I want one of them buses where you can get up and walk around."
"You'd have to hustle a lot of pool to get one of those." She said drily. The nuance was lost completely on him.
"Yeh, I know," he said with wonder. The crowd in the room was growing. She began to wear out. He was a nice boy, polite in a certain off-beat way. As it drew closer to two, he began to wilt obviously. "You need to rest," she said. "Millie said you started at eight."
"It's two in the morning, Dustin. That's six hours after spending all day up. You look bad." He did. His face had taken on a kind of slick greyness.
"I'm fine. I just need my meds."
"Yeh. I'm okay." He went to his cousins, one of whom who opened a backpack and pulled out a bottle. He came back a few minutes later. "I'm okay."
"Have you eaten?"
"Thanks, mom, I'm fine."
But an hour later, he was drooping even more. Her eyes were heavy as well. "Listen, Dustin. Pack it in. Where are you staying tonight?"
"I'm not. We were just going to drive back."
"What?" she was appalled. "You've been up since..."
"Six this morning..."
"You can't even drive, it's your cousin..."
"I can drive," he insisted, affronted. "I drove from St. Louis up here."
"Oh, God," she said. "I'm sharing the road with babies? It's a wonder any of us are alive."
"I'm a good driver."
"You need to rest." He looked at her as if she had insulted him. "Dustin, I need to rest, and I'm a lot older than you."
"Well, I don't have anywhere to go." There was a finality to it. She stared at his boyish profile. Here was an exhausted boy on medication for god knows what, with no place to stay, saying he was going to drive to Memphis in the middle of the night. He took a slug of beer. Drunk.
"Come home with me. You can rest a few hours, I'll fix you a real breakfast and you can go back to Memphis in the morning." He turned his brown eyes slowly to her.
"You'll take me home with you?"
"I guess so. Come on." He looked longingly back at the group at the table.
"They're still betting."
"They're idiots. I'll put a stop to it. Gentlemen," she called. "That's it. Put your money away, it's over."
There were groans. "Alright?" she said.
"I'll get my cousins," he said, and pushed through the throng. He came back in a few minutes with a boy not more than a few years older than him. "O.K. I'll ride with you," he said. "He'll follow. Then you don't have to drive us back downtown, O.K.?"
"That's fine," she said. She went back to the office, gathered up her purse and cue, the trophy and the prize money. "Millie, will you check with Carl about H.'s money?"
"Sure, honey. Get some rest. Will you be back tomorrow?"
"George might be happy to see you, Hilde. I mean, he's a proud man. He probably wouldn't call you but if you happened to be here..."
"We'll see. Thanks, Millie."
She met two of the boys by the employee's entrance, and they walked out through the pool room. It looked almost like a foreign place, it had been so long since she had been in there. There were still players on the tables, but they were the darker sort, the night crawlers. They went out, the boy at the door nodding sleepily to them. "Night," he mumbled.
"Good night," she said. They started for the cars.
"How'd we do?" Dustin asked.
"Not as good as Chicago," he observed.
"Really," she said drily. "If you have that kind of money, why don't you go to a hotel?"
"Not old enough to sign in," one of the cousins said.
"Oh, God." They went to her car, and rondevoused with the cousins near the parking garage. She drove home. The traffic lights flashed yellow in one direction, red in the opposite direction at every corner. He leaned back in the seat and sighed.
"O.K. So I am tired." It was almost a challenge.
"I thought so. So tell me about yourself."
He didn't need to be coaxed and in the next ten minutes poured out more details about himself than she could have asked for. He was in seventh grade, had been kept back a year because of a kidney ailment. His father owned a bar, which was why he had spent so much of his formative years playing pool. His mother had left when he was five, and married an over the road trucker, but she divorced him and came back to his father after only six months. His father smoked dope and drank too much. He'd smoked the first time when he was eleven, but he'd had his first drink when he was too young to remember. "I can handle it though," he volunteered.
"What are you going to do?"
"You mean with my life?"
"Is this like at school or something?" She didn't respond. "Well, I can't drop out 'til I'm sixteen, but then I'll go on the road full time. Like Carl Sebastian. Did you see him tonight?"
"Did you see him play?"
"He kicks butt."
"Yeh. Can I smoke in your car?"
"We're almost home," she said soothingly.
"O.K. Whatever you say." He put the pack back in his jacket pocket. She drove in the driveway of the apartment complex and pulled into her parking space. They got out as the lights from his cousin's beat up mid-1960s Chevy pulled in. She pointed to a guest spot. The boys got out of the car. She took them around the building to the front door. If they were making money like that on a regular basis, where the hell was it going?
"What a dump," he said. She shot him a quizzical look.
"I didn't mean it personally," he said quickly. "You probably don't want us smoking inside, either, do you?"
"It's alright," she said gently. "Come on in." She opened the door and went through to the kitchen. "Are you hungry?"
"I'll fix something. There's a linen closet upstairs. Get some blankets and pillows. Two of you can sleep upstairs and one of you can sleep on the sofa. However you want to do it." She pulled a skillet from the wall and turned the stove on. They flipped a quarter and Dustin got the couch. In a few minutes she had made a standard no-frills midwestern breakfast.
"Grits?" Dustin whined.
"This isn't a full service diner. It's strictly impromptu," she chided. They sat down and tucked into the food enthusiastically. Finally, he stood up and stretched. "Where's your bathroom? I need to pee."
She snorted a little. He was an odd combination of excellent manners and complete gauche. She got up. "In here," she led him through the living room to a little alcove where the bathroom sat opposite the under-the-stairs coat closet. He walked past the stereo and looked at the album on top. "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier?" he read. "Who did that?"
"It's anti-war songs from World War I," she said.
"Weird," he said. He looked up. "You weren't around then, were you?"
"During World War I?"
"It was 1917, hon."
"Guess not, then. I knew it was something like, maybe, I don't know. Years ago."
"There it is," she said, pointing at the bathroom. He stepped inside. A moment later, he stuck his head out.
"Could you come here a minute?" he asked.
"What is it?"
"Come here," he motioned her inside. It was a small room, only big enough for the toilet and vanity. He was standing next to the vanity between it and the toilet.
"What is it?" she looked at the towel rack. There was a towel, and toilet paper and soap. What did he want? "What do you need?"
"You," he whispered, his hand on the door.
"You. Close the door."
"What?" she was incredulous. He leaned over behind her and closed the door himself.
"I need you..." The rounded face looked up into hers, brown angelic eyes dark with something approaching animal insentience.
"Oh, please," he put his hands around her, touched her cheek.
"You're just a kid," she said, appalled. "Dustin. You're fourteen. I'm almost thirty. Are you nuts?"
He moaned a little, moved closer to her. "Not nuts. And I am just a kid. But I want to be a man. Teach me." There was an insufferable disingenuous begging in his voice. She hoped it was disingenuous.
She was torn between bursting into laughter and pushing him away. It was like dialogue out of a truly bad novel.
"Kiss me," he whispered, standing on tiptoe. His breath was on her mouth, alcohol and cigarettes mingling with the underlying peach scent of untarnished youth, before the decay of adulthood set in. He was almost as tall as her, wiry, and stronger than she expected. But his body was about the same size as hers, as her female relatives, like a small woman. "Put your arms around me..."
Twice in one night, she thought. This was getting ludicrous. She gently pushed him back. "Just a kiss," he said. He had nothing to offer her. She wanted marriage, a father for her already existing children, one who might give her more. She wanted to lay down with a man who was bigger than her, stronger, firmer. He was a boy, unfinished work.
"Oh, God, Dustin."
"I know about you. I'd heard of you. Even at home."
"Yeh. Well, we're on the circuit. The guys who live here go to my dad's place and play. They talk about women."
"They talk about me?"
"Yeh. You have class, and you're beautiful." He was panting lightly now, his words paced quickly, a sort of whining whisper to them. "Your boyfriend, George whatever his name is. He was there a few months ago. Said you were the best lay in Athens. Said what you looked like. I knew who you were even before Mack's wife told me. If you'd be, like, my first, I'd be..."
"A real man among men," she spat bitterly, grasping the shoulders of his leather jacket.
"Yeh." He buried his head in her neck, unaware of her sudden anger. That bastard talked about her. "God, you smell good. It's a great smell."
"Listen," she pushed him back. "You're full of shit, kid. I'm not even wearing any perfume." She tried to make her voice sound angry, authoritative.
"I know," he said, almost dreamily. "No. It's you. I could smell you when I stood next to you the first time."
"What?" she was aghast.
"It's not bad," he hurried on. "I mean, it's not like sweat or something nasty. It's just you. And you're so hot." He rolled a little against her. "Kiss me."
"I'm not hot..." She gripped the leather again.
"Just once," he moaned softly. His pressed his body against her, his hand groping for her breast while hers deflected them. She shifted, but he reciprocated, hard against her, his breathing irregular, his words unintelligible begging. She was seized with something of madness, ran her hand back in his hair, conformed her fingers to the nape of his neck, pressed into the young, almost feminine flesh.
"Oh, Christ," he said, pulling back quickly. He looked into her face with a blank horror.
"What is it?"
"Um." He looked down furtively. "I made a mess." He laughed suddenly, a wonderful melodic laugh. "Shit." He turned a little away, toward the toilet.
Her sanity returned. "Clean yourself up and get to bed. That's all you get."
"Man, that's never happened before. I mean, it has, but not like this." She turned quickly and opened the bathroom door. The living room was cool, dark, the air less humid than in the breath-filled bathroom. The other boys had gone upstairs to bed. Shaken, she went upstairs and locked the bedroom door, unsure if she was locking him out or herself in.
* * *
In the morning, the phone woke her.
"Hey, Mom." It was the oldest one.
"You're home. Grandma said you'd stay out all night."
She sat up unsteadily, picked up the watch by the bed. It was 7:30. "I didn't stay out all night, sweetie."
"When can we come home?"
"I thought you were going to stay all weekend."
"I want to come home now."
"Alright," she sighed. "But not yet. I'm not coming over to get you now."
"Then when," he whined.
"Later." She hung up the phone and rubbed her face. Damn. They were still all over her house. She hadn't undressed for bed. She took jeans and a blouse from the closet and took it to the bathroom. She locked the door and showered, running her hands over her own body. She touched herself now only when she had to, only when the need arose and never more than circumstances called for. To incite anything would be too painful. She was, most completely, alone.
Demographics. She was thirty, single with two children in a lower income bracket. Hair going grey. These were the things that conspired to make an unattractive woman. She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. She stole a look in the misty full length mirror on the back of the door. Timidly, she went to it and wiped it with the damp towel from her hair.
The truth was, she still had a narrow waist, no wrinkles, even around her eyes like her sun-worshipping peers. But her hips were wider than her chest. She was raised in the 36-24-36 era when that was so oft-repeated that she had no other notion of feminine beauty. Yet there must be something else there. Something that men saw and she missed completely. Robert Burns wrote words in Gaelic about self-appraisal, "Oh, what gifts the giftee gie us, to see ourselves as others see us." Or maybe they were all just easily aroused fools. For everything she could see positive, there were three negatives.
She turned away, pulled on her jeans. Picking up the bathroom a little, she went downstairs. Dustin was still asleep on the couch on his back. He had taken off his jeans, and he lay, legs open, one knee up against the back of the couch, bathed in the sickly light that came through the orangish insulated curtains. One arm was thrown up across his forehead, his mouth open, emitting puppyish snorts and snores. The blanket half covered the prone leg, wended its way up along the inside curve of his smooth thigh and between his legs onto his torso. He gripped it against his belly in his fist.
She stared at him. Like a lightening strike, some wicked, unfamiliar urge shot through her. What if it was done, not as an offering of good faith, to get into a place of security? What if, for once, it wasn't about love and commitment, and raising children together in a home? What if there was a time it was just for the pleasure of it, for the fact that there were living bodies that could connect? A male cat has to be taught by an experienced female the art of reproductive coupling. Why shouldn't she? Three steps, and she could cross the space between them, slide onto his young, open body, kiss him awake. He would open his eyes, surprised to find her hand between his legs. She would raise up over him, lower herself onto him, bring him off and he would never, in a million years, forget it. She could touch him in ways no fourteen year old girl could even imagine, much less perform. If she put her mouth over his parts, now there would be a moment in heaven for both of them. She felt her face grow leaden, the breath stop in her searing lungs.
She turned mechanically, compelled her feet to move, one in front of the other until she was in the kitchen. Enough. There were stories about insatiable, perverse women. But they're written by men. Real women rarely experience such an exuberance of masculine sexual feelings. Men rate themselves by conquests, number of erections, amount of ejaculate. Women are far more subtle. They rate themselves by numbers of successive times a man returns, by the length of the relationship, by the number of children. Women who indulge in perversions generally do so at the behest of a man, at least at first. Anything can become habitual.
He was just a boy.
She wiped up the table, made breakfast and put together some sandwiches for them to take on the road. It was almost noon before the cousins got up and came downstairs like a herd of buffalo. "Hey, man, get up," one said, and she heard the sound of gentle slapping.
"I'm up," he growled. "Damn. I gotta pee." They managed to organize themselves, and ate breakfast.
"We gotta get going," the elder of the two cousins said. "Thank you for everything."
"Yeh," the boy hesitated at the door. The others were trooping up the sidewalk toward the car. "Hey," he said softly, touching her waist. She had the urge to let her hip drop, shift her weight so that he could pull her forward to him. She stayed ramrod straight. "Kiss?"
She shook her head. "Hug?"
He shrugged. "O.K." She put her arms gently around him, maternally. He buried his head in her shoulder. Another second and his lips would have been on her neck. "If I come back next year, will you give me some?"
"Probably in a year you'll have had so much, you won't want me," she said pragmatically.
"Don't think so." He reached up and touched her face.
"Come on, asshole," the cousin shouted. "Damn."
"Coming, asshole," he called back. "I gotta go."
"Go on, then."
* * *
"So you got creamed," Pencil said sympathetically. It was Thursday night. The kids were at grandma's. She was restless. The nights out a few weeks back had made her think more about being among people, any people.
"Not really. She's a pro. I have no objections to loosing to a worthy opponent," she insisted. "Besides, I wasn't in it to win."
He snorted. "Like hell. We're all in it to win."
"There's always next year," Lou wiped the counter. "Maybe their fry vat'll go out again. That was sweet."
"So, there was good that came out of it," she smiled philosophically. She hadn't gone back to Shots, so what happened the rest of the night or the weekend was anybody's guess. H. surely got his money, or didn't. She didn't really care. "I'm just as happy to go back to shooting my little billiard balls and forgetting all the rest of that. It's an intellectual practice, not a sports thing for me, anyway." Pencil was adjusting himself in the chair. He looked uncomfortable. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"Yeh. Just a little preoccupied I guess. I think it's going to be a good day, though."
"Really?" she said happily. "I'm glad for you."
"Yeh. Me too." But there was something troubling about his demeanor. The door opened and Walter came in. Pencil began scratching his palm vigorously.
"My palm itches," he said in a sort of queasily melodic way.
"Means I'm going to come into some money."
"Is that what it means?" she asked slowly. "Maybe it just means your palm itches."
"It's money. I can tell."
She turned on the stool. "Hey, Walter. I haven't seen you in a while. Since the tournament. How's it going?"
"Hey, Walter. I need to talk to you," Pencil said in that same melodic tone. But there was an unfamiliar emphasis in his voice. "Don't leave until we talk, you hear?"
"I gotta take a leak," the boy said abstractly, heading for the rear of the hall. Pencil's glass was poised a few inches from his lips, a cigarette hanging from between his fingers. He watched the boy with almost owl-like intensity, an owl-like turning to his head. The long ash dropped off the cigarette onto the bar.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, suddenly peeved. Affected people irritated her more than almost any other single characteristic.
"The little shit owes me money. He's going to pay me. Tonight."
"Well, good for him. Good for you." She slipped off the stool, trying not to betray too much.
Walter came out of the bathroom and headed for the rear tables. "Walter, what's going on?" He looked thinner, nervous, furtive.
"He said you owe him money."
Somebody had left balls on the table. He tossed them into the frame. "You break?"
"Sure." She leaned up and broke the rack. "Money?"
"Yeh. I owe him money." He stood close to her. He was wearing just the undershirt, sleeveless. The soft muscles of his chest barely broke waves on the front of the shirt. He lined up the shot, then stood up. "Hey, listen, Hilde. Go tell him I don't have the money. Ask him if I can have a few more days. I've been doin' better at this. I learned a lot from you."
"Walter," she said slowly, deliberately. "I don't want to get involved in this. If you owe him money, you have to be a man about it. Go tell him yourself. He's a nice guy."
The boy snorted. "Nice guy, huh?"
"Well, he seems to be."
"You got a funny definition of nice guys."
"How much do you owe him, for God's sake?" Twenty, she thought, maybe fifty.
"Yeh. And fifty." He snorted again and leaned to make the shot. The ball went in, the cue ball following closely. "Shit."
"You have to give it more draw when they're close like that," she said. "Aim it straight on and then lower the cue to a point below the equator of the ball, as if you were aiming at Bolivia on a globe."
"Fuck Bolivia," he said. "You gonna fix this or not?"
"How did you end up owing him two hundred fifty dollars?" She had no appetite for pushing balls into little holes in a table. She stood beside him. He leaned against the neighboring table and held the cue upright like a lance and wrapped his other arm around his thin waist.
"He sold me some shit."
"What kind of shit?" she probed gently.
"Just shit. Does it matter? I asked for a little and he said why didn't I do a job for him. He said it was really easy to sell. All I had to do was line up some buyers and then I could keep part of the stash. So I took it. Everybody buys the shit."
"You're talking about controlled substances," she said warily.
"No shit, Sherlock."
"Oh, God. He's a dealer?"
"Bingo. Boy. You are quick. How long have you known him?"
"Well, really, Walter. I'm not that kind..."
"Shit. Anyway. I took the shit and made some contacts, and they didn't have any money either. There were three guys, I guess, and I told 'em I had to have the money or he'd make trouble for me. But they didn't, and I think they didn't even give me right names or nothin' and I haven't seen them since. The rest of it's gone. I shoulda made about six hundred off it." He looked at her, a begging look in his eyes.
"Oh, God, Walter."
"Go talk to him. Get me some more time. He likes you."
"Everybody likes me," she said bitterly. He drew a long last pull off the cigarette and dropped it on the concrete part of the floor, wiped it into oblivion with his sneaker. His toe was showing a little through a worn part on the top of the canvas. She drew a deep breath. "I wouldn't do this for anyone else," she said grimly. He was silent, staring at his shoe and the demolished cigarette butt. She went back to the bar.
"Uh, Max?. Listen, about Walter?"
"You talked to him about it?"
"Walter, he owed you money for illegal substances."
"Yeh? And he better pay me tonight."
"Max, he doesn't have the money," she said evenly. "Can you give him a little more time?"
The glass came down on the counter with a ringing sound. "I've given him more time."
"He owes you two-fifty. That's a lot of money for a boy on the street to come up with."
"Shit. He can work for it. He's got a big mouth, but he's good lookin' enough. Or he's got a big mouth and he's good lookin' enough."
"What are you saying?" she was aghast. She put her hands on her head and shook it. "This is a nightmare. You're telling me you think that child should..."
"Child, shit. You aren't his mother. He owes me three eighty."
"Three eighty? He said two fifty."
"He doesn't understand interest," he said slyly.
"What interest?" she said coldly.
"Today you borrow six from me. Tomorrow, you owe me seven. The next day eight. The next day nine. That's all. It's all my fault of course, for not dealing with trustworthy people. I get screwed over every time. It isn't fair." He stared at the counter and methodically lifted the beer. "Get over it. You aren't a saint."
"Are you serious about the interest?"
"That's an outrageous rate, and compounded..."
"Daily, just like the bank." He turned his eyes on her. They were brimming with malevolence. "Want some advise, sister? Keep your nose out of other people's business." He drained the glass and rose from the stool.
"What are you going to do?" she asked uneasily.
"I'm going to get it out of him. If I can't get the money, I'll at least having the satisfaction of kicking the shit out of him."
"Wait, Max...you can't be serious."
"Watch me. I'll get it out of his miserable little hide, and you know what? It'll be fun doing it."
"Well, then, what if he paid you later..."
"There isn't a later."
"What do you mean?" she felt suddenly ill.
"My boys don't do things by half-measures." He headed toward the front of the place. "I'll be right back."
"Oh, God. Lou. Max says he's going to beat Walter up. He sounds like he means to do him in."
"I wouldn't doubt it. The little shit owes him."
"We've got to..."
"No way. Stay out of it. It isn't your business." Her voice was cold. For a moment, she felt like she had landed in another universe, almost exactly identical to the one she usually occupied, but peopled with characters who looked like the nice ones she knew, but weren't.
"Lou, you're kidding." She could see Max upstairs through the plate glass window by the light of the streetlamp. He was leaning inside the passenger side of a car. The doors opened and three men got out. She raced to the back. "Walter, you've got to get out of here."
"They want to..."
"Oh, shit," he said. She sped to the rear exit. He was looking back, like Lot's wife, a pillar of salt. She grabbed the front of his thin undershirt and pulled him into the alcove. "My car's out back," she shouted. "Come on." She pulled him around and pushed him up the stairs, while she checked the back of the door to see if there was a lock on it of any kind. There wasn't. She darted up behind him. "Come on," she passed him again, and ran across the alley to the parking lot where she'd left her car.
There was a sound behind her, of the glass and metal door banging against the brick wall. "There they are," someone shouted. They started after them. Headlights from a car coming up the alley threw pools of light on the men, and before they could get across the alley, cursing and yelling at the car, she and the boy had reached her car. He hesitated, looking furtively behind. They thumped on the trunk of the intervening car. "Hurry the fuck up," one of the men yelled. She fumbled with the key to unlock the driver's side. Seconds. Seconds.
"Hurry," he panted, more from terror than exertion. The lock turned, and she pulled the handle up and pulled the door open. The window was still half way down. She leaned over and undid the passenger side lock. He was in the car in a split second. She turned the key in the ignition, before he had even closed the passenger door. Her hands shaking violently, she threw the car into reverse. Without even looking behind her, she careened out of the parking space. There was no way to get out of the lot except past them. "Lock the door," she yelled.
"Christ. Christ," he bleated.
There was no where to go. The path was blocked by a car in front of them on the street that had apparently stopped to let someone off at the nightclub nearby.
"Back up," the boy urged. "Hurry up. Back up." She looked behind to see if she could back down the alley. Two men were behind the car already.
Max walked quickly to the car. Her window was still half rolled down, stuck. "Oh, God," she prayed. "Oh, God, have mercy." The sawed off end of a shotgun came through the aperture in the window.
"I don't have nothin' against you, Hilde," he said as calmly as if he was a businessman in a suit conducting contractual negotiations. "You better move, because you don't want to get hurt." She glanced over at the boy. He was immobile, staring, his large eyes made even more luminous by the night lighting, the pools from streetlamps and shining car surfaces, the light from the radio, the control panel of the car.
"Oh, God," he said, sinking in the seat a little.
Two of the men had gone around the car. They grabbed the door handles and jerked up on them. The window handle was still stuck. She tried to move it, but it wouldn't go.
"Hilde," Max said gently, patiently, as if addressing a child. "You shouldn't have gotten messed up in this. Let it go. Get out and you walk away, free and clear. You understand?" He started to reach through to pull the lock up, but there wasn't enough room to put his arm down to the lever.
"Max. This is insane. We aren't animals here. You're a rational person. Don't you know what'll happen to you if you do this?"
"Hilde," he began again, slowly. "A debt's a debt. This thing is loaded. I'm going to count to ten and then it's going to go off in my hand."
"Max," she breathed.
"One. Two. Three."
"Oh, God," she blurted. Her insides were hot, from the base of her spine all the way up. She struggled again with the handle. Suddenly, it jerked in her hand, and the window slammed up the rest of the way. The opening of the gun pointed at the headliner of the car. Instantly, the car in front of her pulled away, and she stepped on the gas and careened out of the parking lot onto the street.
She heard a loud noise behind her, but didn't look back. She sped to the north a block and then east. He covered his face with his hands and moaned, baleful.
"You alright?" she asked.
"Yeh. I'm alright. You alright?"
They drove a few blocks in silence. This was Athens. Things like this didn't happen in Athens. "Listen," he said finally. "I can't go back to where I was staying. He knows where it is."
"You can't go to my place. Wait. I have a friend. A man. He's put up some odd characters. He might take you in for a few days. Walter, stay low. Don't go back in there."
"I won't." His voice sounded like a young boy's. He was a young boy. She looked at him full of pity and wonder. They pulled into the driveway of the little house on Wester Street.
"This your boyfriend?"
"We went out together at one time." She knocked on the door. Brit answered. He was wearing only his jeans, and had a spatula in his hand. The place smelled of burned food.
"Hey, Brit," she said. He opened his arms and she stepped into his hug. But only for a moment. It wasn't a good idea to hug him. It had led to three reconciliations in the last ten years. "Brit, this is Walter. Walter's in a spot. Can you put him up?"
He appraised the boy, who stood looking insufferably innocent and guileless. It was no ploy. Everything was drained out of him. Brit shrugged.
"I'm sorry," she said. "If you had a phone, I would have called you. But you don't. I didn't know where else to take him."
"Anywhere?" he said. "Just joking. Fine."
"Thanks. Listen. It's late. Brit, thank you so much. Walter. I won't come back for a few days. Stay here. We'll try to figure out what to do when the dust dies down, but in the meantime, stay away from Lou's or anywhere else he might show up, alright?"
She pulled out her wallet. "Look, here's twenty bucks. It's not much, but you can get some groceries." She handed it to Brit.
She got back in the car. It was the middle of the night. She felt uncomfortable about going back to her apartment. What if he knew where she lived? She drove home and laid down on the couch. "Dear Lord," she prayed, suddenly painfully aware of an emptiness to her prayers. "Dear Lord, do something for that boy. Keep him safe. Make this go away." She lay staring at the ceiling until morning. When the kids came home, it was more like home again, and they went to the park and played on the equipment, on the swings and the little bridges and the monkey bars. It felt almost like a holy ritual. She'd been an idiot, thinking that with her background, being a shy and basically moral person, she could mold a society of some kind out of pool halls and bars. Still, things being what they were, she had yet to go anywhere else where she felt accepted, up to and including reading and literary groups, classes and even churches.
There was a feeling of disreality to all this. How had she, a little middle aged, middle class woman gotten caught up in what thirties authors would have called the underbelly of the city? This wasn't even a decent city. There were no skyscrapers, no big bridges or great monuments. It was just another piddling midwestern nothing.
God, find a way for him, she prayed.
Two days later, she was still troubled, though less so. She would wait another day to go to Brit's and look in on the boy. At that point, she would encourage him to do something about his circumstances. She couldn't tell him to go home. Who knew why he had left in the first place? Obviously it wasn't working.
She went to the pharmacy to pick up something for poison ivy the boys had gotten into on their outing to the park. The newspaper caught her eye in the news stand. "Local man killed on Main."
She looked down the columns. "Max Webster, 34, 2016 Main, was killed instantly yesterday..."
Max Webster. Surely not the same Max.
She grasped the paper up and stared at the article. "When Abner Stinkowsky, 79, the driver of a northbound 1962 Ford pickup truck, suffered a heart attack and lost control of the vehicle. The truck crossed four lanes of traffic, and struck Webster, who had been standing on the sidewalk in front of his home, waiting to cross."
Her knees went weak and she leaned against the side of the building.
"What is it?" her oldest son asked.
"Nothing, sweetie," she said numbly. "Nothing."
* * *
She dropped the kids at school and drove as quickly as she dared to Brit's house. She pulled in the gravel drive, greeted the cat in passing, and knocked on the door. The cat made figure eights around her legs.
Brit opened the door. He was still without a shirt and hadn't shaved in several days. He rubbed his face, obviously half asleep and moved away from the door to let her in.
"Well, come on if you're coming," he grumbled.
"Sorry. Did I wake you?" It was well past nine.
"Yeh. What do you want?"
"Well, really. I am sorry. Where's Walter?"
"Gone? Gone where?"
"I threw the little bastard out."
"You did? Why?"
He turned on her with a wilting look. "I had my reasons."
"What did he do?" The place looked like a tornado had hit it. It had probably looked as bad the other night, but she was too distracted to notice. Brit's motto had always been, "A place for everything and everything out of place." When they first met, she'd thought he just needed a woman to look after him. After a few years, she knew he was nobody to have a home with. "You want me to be bourgeois," he complained.
"Christ, Brit, I want you to be human." But that was years ago. She gave up. The cost was too great.
"Well, the little bastard came in here and went to bed and the next day he smoked a bunch of my shit and then asked if you and I were together. I said we weren't. I didn't tell him we had been for years, or that I still wanted to be. He said he thought you might go to bed with him. What did I think? I said I thought he better get his ass out of my house before I kicked his butt up around his ears."
She sank into a chair at the overtaxed table. There was laundry mingled with dirty dishes, cat food tins, newspapers and a library book of science fiction stories. "So he's gone?" She was incredulous.
"Gone. And he doesn't know your name either or where you live. So he's really gone." There was a certain tone of malignant triumph in his voice.
"Thanks." She got up.
"Fix me breakfast?" The old wheedling came back into his voice.
"Not this morning," she said, distracted. "I'll see you."
"Not now." She walked quickly back to the car, and got in. She pulled to the stop sign and hesitated. Drops of water fell from the sky onto the windshield. She turned on the wipers. A feeling of disreality settled in over her. The rubber-lined wipers swept the raindrops from the windshield. So many drops. She closed her eyes. In a moment the glass was clear. The rain had stopped. They were gone as if they had never been there, never fallen on the glass. She turned the handle and the wipers slowed to halt. It was over.
* * *