Procol Harum’s Salty Dog was playing on the jukebox. I could barely hear it over the commotion in the busy kitchen at Smitty’s Bar and Eats. I only knew a few of the lyrics, but that didn’t stop me from singing along in my most soulful cigarettes-and-whiskey voice while I watched the seconds tick down on the bread timer.
My name’s Terry Saltz. I’m a carpenter. I also moonlight a few nights a week at Smitty’s. Technically, when I’m at Smitty’s I’m a bouncer. But at Smitty’s you pitch in where you’re needed. That’s why I was baking bread.
Suddenly Danny Gillespie was beside me, elbowing me in the ribs. “Boss. Seven-thirty. Time for pool league. Let’s go.”
His freckled face was all serious. That was an unusual condition for him. He was chewing the inside of his cheek and the chewing action was making his strawberry blond mustache bounce.
Me and Danny have been best friends since we were little kids. When we were fifteen, my brother P.J. got us jobs as gofers for Red Perkins Construction and we learned carpentry together. Danny eventually got fed up with Red, went to work for Miller Roofing, and we lost touch for a while.
But then I went to jail. Which I guess this is as good a time as any to go ahead and explain about that. Get that right out of the way. See, one night in a bar I did a bunch of shots along with some controlled substances. Then I hit some people and trashed the place.
I don’t remember anything after the first few shots, but when I came to, I was in a cell. My skinned knuckles and assorted lumps and bruises were solid evidence I’d had a pretty interesting night.
Because of my one-man rampage, I ended up losing my job, my wife, and my trailer. There was gonna be no place for me to go when I got out, and nothing for me to do when I got there.
Then Danny showed up. It turned out he’d been living in the crappy little attic of an old house just down the hill from the town square in Spencer, Ohio, in the northern part of Grand County. He visited me in jail and mostly kept a straight face as he listened to my sad stories and, as my release date approached, he saved my ass by offering to let me crash at his place till I got back on my feet. Moving in with Danny kept me off the streets.
Moving in with Danny had an added benefit. If I’d gone back to my old stomping grounds in the southern end of the county, odds were I’d have slid right back into my old bad habits, and I didn’t want that. I really didn’t want that. I didn’t want to end up back in jail.
So I swore off the booze and drugs and moved in with Danny in Spencer. He even carried me awhile till I found a job as a pizza driver.
Now, a busy year and a half later, I still hadn’t touched anything stronger than coffee and Marlboros, we had us a bunch of new friends, and we were sharing an awesome double-wide with a rookie cop out in Chandler’s Trailer Park.
We were carpentering together again, and moonlighting together as bouncers at Smitty’s, and our brand-new pool team was about to kick off its winter session.
I told Danny, “Hang on. I gotta get these loaves out of the oven when the timer goes off. And don’t call me Boss.”
Danny snickered. Then Hammer spoke up. Which I didn’t think he was even paying any attention. He’d been standing there with his hands tucked under his armpits like he was in a hypnotic trance or something, watching the hot new waitress as she tried to reach the take-home cartons that were stacked on a high shelf.
Hammer said, “Go on, Boss. I’ll take care of the bread.”
I glared at him. Skinny, goofy, redheaded kid. He was grinning at me. Because he’d called me Boss.
I said, “Now he’s got you doing it, too? It’s not funny, Hammer. Do not call me Boss.”
I stepped over to lift down the boxes the new girl was never gonna reach without a stepladder. Then Danny dragged me out of the kitchen. I glanced at his profile and saw he was still smirking about Hammer calling me Boss.
I got my arm free and followed him across the busy dining room. Sexy-ass dining room with thick burgundy carpeting, dark green wainscoted walls, sparkling brass chandeliers dimmed down to half light, and oak captain’s chairs with sexy green leather seats at sexy oak tables. Most of the tables were surrounded by happy, chewing customers.
I was about to tell Danny he seriously had to stop calling me Boss, and stop instigating everybody else to do it, too, when we came to the doorway from the dining room to the pool hall and I saw the crowd. I stopped and stared.
I said, “Holy shit. Where’d all these people come from?”
Both of Smitty’s teams were shooting at home that first night of pool league. And you figure, four pool teams with six to eight players each, okay, that’s a lot of people. But that didn’t account for the crowd all along the front of the bar.
Besides a lot of unfamiliar faces, I saw that Smitty had come out from behind the bar to watch, and I noticed that some of the regular bar flies, who we call the Members, had even come around from their reserved seating area on the back side of the bar.
Mule, wearing his usual stained Carhartt overalls, leaned against the pinball machine, his longneck in his hand. Big ole Tiny was right beside him. Tiny’s huge Carhartts were plenty stained, too. Tiny runs a septic service. Mule works for him.
Danny threaded his way between the pool tables to where our team, looking tough and menacing in black Smitty’s T-shirts and black jeans, was huddled by the scorer’s table. I followed him, looking around with my mouth hanging open.
The Elliot twins, Luther and Reginald, were our co-captains. They were sitting at the scorer’s table studying the score sheet. The rest of our team was hovering over them. A fat guy I didn’t know was also hovering there. He was talking to the twins.
As I walked up, he said, “. . . to shove it, ya know? I mean, I need a job, but I don’t need that job.”
One of the Elliot twins said, “No kidding. You can make that hourly working at Burger King these days. That one up in Fairfield has a sign out in front.”
The fat guy said, “No shit? Huh.” He looked at his watch. “Well, I guess we oughtta get started. Who’re you putting up first?”
Luther Elliot said, “Saltz. New player. Unranked.”
The fat guy bustled back to his team’s end of the table.
Bump Bellini was standing behind the twins, screwing a stick together. Some of his long blond hair had gotten loose from his ponytail. He blew it away from his nose.
I looked closer at the stick. It was mine. The new one I’d bought two weeks earlier. He saw me and walked over, holding my stick out.
I couldn’t stop staring at the crowd. It was a total clusterfuck, all around the pool tables and in front of the bar. People were glancing my way, rubbing their chins, putting their heads together and talking quietly, like they were discussing something important. I didn’t like the look of things at all.
I pushed past Bump so I could talk to the twins. We had six players on our team, and only five sets are played in a match, so I was thinking I could sit out that first week. You know? Get a feel from the sidelines for what these matches were like.
I said to Reginald Elliot, “Dude. Play somebody else first. And where the fuck did all these people come from?”
Reginald grinned up at me. “Believe me, precious. It’s better to go first when you’re new. If you wait, your jitters will only get worse.”
Don’t get the wrong idea about that “precious” thing. The twins are like that. They call everybody precious.
“But Danny, Bump, and Gruf are all new, too. Seriously. I’m not ready.”
The twins were shaking their blond heads. Reginald said, “Danny, Bump, and Gruf have all played in leagues before. You’re the inexperienced one, so you’re up. You’ve got a five-minute practice session as soon as your opponent finishes. Then it’s a race to three. That means, whoever wins three games first . . . ”
“I know what it means.”
I stole a glance across the pool table toward the other team’s end. I remembered we were playing the team from Four Corners Tavern in Woodcrest. The team that called themselves the Terminators.
I said, “Who’s my opponent?”
“They’re discussing it now. Ah. Here comes their captain.”
The fat guy was waddling toward us. He said, “We’re playing Tiffany,” and jerked his thumb to indicate a fat, messy girl who had stepped up to the table and was beginning to rack the balls.
Tiffany was wearing a school bus yellow T-shirt that said I’m With Stupid and had a big red pointing arrow. I watched the arrow, but no matter which way she turned, I didn’t see Stupid anywhere. I wondered if maybe Stupid had gotten a load of her T-shirt and decided she wasn’t with him after all.
A voice beside me said, “Wouldja?”
It was Danny. I saw he was watching Tiffany, too. I said, “Not even with your dick.”
Then I turned back to tell Reginald that I wasn’t shooting first, but he wasn’t there anymore. He was over at the bar getting his gin and tonic refreshed.
Gruf Ridolfi straightened up from the score book. He ran his fingers through his long black DA, grinned at me, and gave me the thumbs-up.
I said, “No. Dude. Somebody else has to go first. I . . . ”
“New guy always goes first,” he said firmly. “It’s easier on the nerves that way.”
Tiffany’s five minute practice session seemed like it was over before it started. Then it was my turn to practice. There was no one left to turn to. No mercy available anywhere, except that Reginald came back to the scorer’s table carrying an iced tea for me along with his gin and tonic. Iced tea for me because, like I said before, I don’t do alcohol anymore.
There was nothing I could do but suck it up. I racked the balls, positioned the cue ball, lined up to break, and totally biffed. My stick glanced over the top of the cue ball and the cue ball rolled sideways about two inches. I’d forgotten to chalk the tip of my stick.
Tiffany snickered. Behind me, people groaned.
Somebody said, “Noonan.” It sounded like Gruf.
I turned around. Gruf was scratching his head and looking up at the ceiling. Mule was frowning at me.
Fuckin’ Mule. Frowning at me.
I turned back to the table and found the chalk. Somehow I got through my practice session, even though my bridge hand seemed to have developed a slight tremor.
Then it was time to shoot for the break. At least I knew how to do that. We’d gone over it at our team practices. What you do is, the two players stand side by side at the head of the table and both shoot at the same time. The idea is to hit the end rail, and the one whose ball stops closest to the end rail after touching it, wins the right to break.
Tiffany’s ball bounced off the end rail and stopped in about the middle of the table. So did mine, only mine stopped there after it came all the way back to the head rail and bounced back to the middle. Her break.
I racked the balls and stepped back out of the way. Reginald came to stand beside me. He reached over and brushed bread flour off the front of my black Smitty’s T-shirt.
Tiffany broke and the thirteen ball dropped into the corner pocket. She walked around the table, decided to try a rail shot on the eleven, and missed.
I started for the table.
Danny said, “Boss. Don’t forget to chalk up.”
Which was irritating, because I would’ve forgotten.
I decided to go for the four in the side, but just as I was lining up on it, Reginald stopped me.
I stood up and turned around. “What.”
Reginald stepped close beside me, cocked his hip, frowned, cupped his chin, and stared at the table. “Let’s talk about your strategy.”
I said, “My strategy is: Sink all the solids and then drop the eight.”
Like, What the fuck. You know?
He allowed a tight smile. “Well, yes. In a perfect world.”
Across the way, Tiffany said loudly, “Tick tock, there, Shitty’s. In this lifetime, huh?”
The Terminators all snickered.
Reginald ignored her and gave me my first four shots, telling me what English to use and where to leave the cue ball. I paid attention. The Elliot twins are far and away the two best shots in the entire bar league.
I lined up on the one ball to the corner like he’d said. The one dropped, but I shot a little too hard and ended up with the cue ball behind two stripes and no good shots on a solid. I’d only managed to get one lousy ball down and I was already screwed. I stood up from the table, baffled.
Reginald said, “Time out.”
Tiffany yelled, “Foul. He already had a time out.”
Reginald looked over with his mouth open, but her fat captain was already telling her that I was a new, unranked player and was entitled to unlimited time outs in my first two matches.
The captain was fat and Tiffany was fat. Matter of fact, just about everybody standing and sitting around the opposing scorer’s table was fat.
I said to Reginald, “Those guys must have a lot of team dinners, huh?”
But he was studying the table and seemed not to hear me.
He said, “We’ll call a safety. Remember, to make it a legal shot, you have to hit one of your own balls first. Then something has to hit a rail.”
He showed me what to do by sketching lines in the air above the green felt surface with his finger.
I nodded and lined up for the shot.
Reginald said, “Call the safety, precious.”
Tiffany said, “Yeah. Call the safety, precious.”
I straightened. “Safety.”
I stood there breathing for a few seconds. Jeez. Up until the last ten minutes or so, I’d been pretty good at pool. Now I felt like I’d never played the game in my life.
I chalked my stick and managed to do what he’d told me. My team and most of the people standing in front of the bar nodded and clapped. The safety worked like it was supposed to and Tiffany scratched. I sank a couple of balls and then blew an easy shot. Then she blew an easy shot, and then I managed to run out the table. One-zip.
Tiffany racked the balls, swearing to herself. I chalked my stick. I broke and the four ball dropped. I lined up on the three ball to the corner pocket. Tiffany suddenly appeared in my line of vision, twirling her stick. Distracted, I glanced at her, and in that glance I caught sight of a face in the crowd just over her shoulder.
I went back to lining up my shot before I realized whose face it was. I stood up and looked again, but he had disappeared.
I took a few steps toward the bar, craning my neck, trying to find him. I took a few more steps so that I could see down the back hall, but there was no sign of him. Danny, looking puzzled, had stepped up beside me.
I said, “I thought I saw my brother. Berk. Did you see him?”
He shook his head. “What would Berk be doing here? Are you sure it was him?”
I wasn’t. It’d been years since I’d seen Berk, and it’d been only a split-second glance.
I shrugged it off and went back to the table, but I couldn’t get my head clear. My shot went wide, and my cue ball didn’t end up where I meant for it to, either. It was lined up to give Tiffany a bunny shot, eleven to the side. She made her shot, and three more, before she blew a bank shot and scratched.
I shook out the cobwebs and settled myself down. Then I ran the table. Two-zip. The fans went wild. Gruf and Bump stood on either side of me, pounding me on the back.
Bump said, “One more game, dude.”
Gruf said, “Bring it on home now.”
I laughed at them. I broke, sinking the two ball, and missed a rail shot to the corner. Tiffany sank two but missed a bank shot into the side pocket. As I stepped up to the table, I noticed for the first time that the eight ball was sitting on the side rail, dangerously close to the near corner pocket. I dropped four balls, but then I hesitated.
I looked back to the scorer’s table to see if Reginald was going to come out to talk to me. He nodded at me to go ahead and see what I could do.
I thought I could maybe clip the six ball into the side pocket, but then the cue ball would be heading up toward that eight ball.
You never want to risk an Early Eight. Early Eight is instant death. Sink that badass black eight ball before it’s time and it’s instamatic Game Over.
I looked for a safety, found one, called it, and made it. My team applauded.
Tiffany stepped up, called the nine in the side, and made a tough bank shot. But the cue ball kept going. It banked around to make a perfect rail shot on the eight. The eight dropped into the corner pocket with a thud.
Early Eight. My team and most of the bar erupted into cheers. I’d won my first-ever bar-league set, three-zip. I was suddenly swallowed up by laughing, back-slapping teammates.
Then the other end of the room erupted in cheers. A bunch of people from Lo-Lites Bar in Ladonia were cheering for the tall, slender blonde who had just won her set. She strutted back to her table laughing, pumping the air with her hands in that “raise the roof” gesture.
I heard her say, “That’s me. Red Hot. Just like my license plate says.”
None of us knew it on that frigid January night, of course, but Red Hot didn’t have much longer to be red hot. In just a few hours, the long, tall blonde from Lo-Lites was going to be cold as ice.