Luther was up next. While he and his opponent took their practice sessions, I walked through the bar looking for my brother Berk, or a guy who looked like him. I kept on looking for him even after I knew he wasn’t there.
Berk is eight years older than me. I thought about that as I searched the bar, and realized that made him thirty-four. As a kid, I worshiped Berk like a god. Everything he did seemed golden.
After he bought his first pickup truck, sometimes he’d let me ride shotgun and we’d cruise around southern Grand County. Go get a Coke or something. I’d ride as tall as I could and keep my eyes peeled, hoping to see kids I knew. When I did, I’d make Berk honk his horn so they’d look around and see me riding with my brother. Then I’d hoist the high hard one at them.
Even after I was sure Berk wasn’t in the bar, I kept my eyes moving around because now that my set was over, I was more or less back on the job.
Me and Danny and Bump are sort of odd job boys at Smitty’s. Whatever needs to get done, we do it. The co-captains of our pool team, the Elliot twins, are servers. Gruf is Smitty’s son, so he’s sort of a glorified odd job boy slash manager.
The Elliot twins are ranked as sevens in the pool league. That’s the highest ranking there is, and those two are amazing to watch. Luther Elliot was up after me. His opponent that night was ranked a four. Under the handicapping system the league used, that meant Luther had to win seven games before his opponent won four. Everybody settled down for a long one.
There was quite a crowd gathered around to watch Luther shoot—including, I noticed, the tall blonde from Lo-Lites. She was model thin and had that kind of long, straight, glossy blond hair that looks so perfect it seems like it must be fake.
Luther and his opponent shot for the break. Luther left his ball leaning against the end rail. You can’t do any better than that. His opponent was a little ruddy-faced guy who’d lost about half of his brown hair and who was nearly as wide as he was tall. I noticed that the first thing he did was look around for a bridge. I imagined, as short and wide as he was, he was probably pretty good with the bridge by now.
Somewhere behind me, I heard a guy clear his throat in a nervous way and say, “I was watching your set. You really spanked that guy.”
I looked for the speaker and found a pale little pocket protector-looking dude standing behind me and a little to my left. He was staring up through his cloudy glasses at the blonde from Lo-Lites. His eyes were wide with awe and wonder.
Without looking at him, she said, “That’s me. Red Hot. Just like my license plate says.”
The first time I heard her say that, it sounded kind of cool. Hearing her say it a second time, I realized it was her rap, and now it sounded corny. Kind of annoying in a vague sort of way, like, Oh. License plate? Golly.
The nerd cleared his throat again. “Boy. You sure are a tall drink of water.”
She ignored him for a few seconds. Then she looked down her nose at him and said, “Long.” Her attitude was nasty.
The guy said, “Huh?”
The girl said, “It’s not tall. It’s long. Long drink of water.”
She looked back toward our team’s table, where Luther was lining up for his break. I watched her, thinking her bitchy attitude was out of line. I mean, the guy was harmless. Why’d she have to go ahead and bust his balls like that?
An older guy in a chocolate brown suit with a lighter brown tie stood beside her. He had a soft, tired look about him. His cheeks drooped like some of the air had leaked out. Even his thin brown hair looked tired.
He had the posture of a guy who has to stand up all day on his job—toed out, with his knees bent a little, like he had a slightly lower center of gravity than most people.
A spot opened up in front of the pinball machine so I moved over there and leaned against it. I was curious about the guy in the brown suit because that suit and tie made him look so out of place. Like he belonged over in the dining room, chewing on a twenty-six-dollar steak, instead of out here in the pool hall. I noticed that every time a girl walked by, his eyes followed her. Each time, it looked to me like his eyes were firmly focused on ass.
It didn’t occur to me then that they were together, the old guy and the tall blonde. I watched him when he headed over to the bar. After a few minutes of watching Luther’s set, I glanced over and saw that the guy was on his way back and he was carrying two drinks. He handed one to the blonde and I thought, Huh. They still didn’t speak to each other.
Ten or fifteen minutes went by. I glanced at the couple a few times, but mainly I watched Luther shoot. The couple was standing so that the blonde had about a quarter profile to me and Brown Suit faced me head-on. They never seemed to actually look at each other. They were too busy watching the people who passed back and forth between the bar and the pool tables.
The blonde finished her drink. She rattled her ice at Brown Suit and he headed toward the bar for another refill. As he walked away, she slowly did a three-sixty. Her eyes paused briefly on me as she scanned toward the bar.
Then the scanning stopped and she smiled. She raised her hand and wiggled her fingers at somebody. By the obvious change in her breathing and the way she began to squirm just a little bit, I could tell she was happy to see him, whoever he was.
I turned to look. The somebody had his chin on his fist, his head tipped sideways, and was staring at her. He flicked his tongue at her like a snake. He was dark and dangerous-looking, with long, black, curling hair which he wore loose, a menacing black mustache, and a black turtleneck full of muscle.
Over the turtleneck, he wore his colors. By colors, I mean his leather jacket. One glance at that weathered, studded leather jacket told me that he was a club biker. I couldn’t see his back, so I didn’t know which club until much later.
I got curious what would happen, since the blonde chick was already with somebody. Brown Suit returned with her drink refill and she shifted so that she was facing the bar where Snake Man was.
I had a chance to really look at her now. She had a long narrow nose, big green eyes that were slightly too close together, high cheekbones that gave her a hungry look, and an indentation in the middle of her chin. She wore a black stretch-lace T-shirt and you could see the shadow of the black bra underneath it. Tight black straight-leg jeans disappeared into tall black leather boots with some serious stiletto heels.
She’d stopped smiling. She was restless and fidgety, like she had an interesting itch.
Over at the pool table, a loud Wo went up. Luther had just won his set, and he’d apparently done it decisively, since the eight ball and all the solids were gone but all the stripes were still there, spread across the table. Bump was pounding Luther on the back. I caught Luther’s eye and gave him the thumbs-up.
As the noise died down, I heard the blonde finish her sentence: “. . . filthy pig.”
I looked over. So did several other people who were standing near enough to hear her. She was glaring at Brown Suit and breathing hard. I couldn’t hear what he said. Then she said, “You’re a fucking pig, Ray. Get me another drink.”
He shrugged, took her glass, and headed for the bar. She looked over at Snake Man, smiled, pursed her lips, and kissed the air at him. I didn’t look at him right then. I didn’t need to see any more of his flicking tongue. Brown Suit came back from the bar and stopped beside the blonde, so now they were both more or less facing me.
She took her glass from him and knocked some back.
He said, “Now. Have you calmed down?”
She said, “You’re disgusting. I can’t even stand to look at you.”
Then she noticed me staring at her. “What’re you looking at?”
I frowned. “Nothing special.”
She said, “Well, then, mind your own fucking business.”
I said, “I am.”
Which, she was my business at that particular moment, since I was the nearest bouncer. When she finally succeeded in provoking Brown Suit into swinging on her or something, it was probably gonna be up to me to pull him off. So I went right on watching them.
She turned back to Brown Suit and snarled, “You fat fuck.”
He’d had enough. He said, “Get your coat. I’m taking you home.”
“I drove myself here, remember?”
“You’re drunk. I’ll drive you home.”
She laughed. “I’d rather walk home to Ladonia in a fucking blizzard than ride with you. But why don’t you go? That’s a good idea.”
She tossed her glossy blond hair and looked toward the pool tables.
He said, “Don’t tempt me. But you’re drunk. If I left, how would you . . . Oh, I get it. Who is it this time?”
He began to look around. I glanced over at Snake Man. He was hunched over his beer mug, studying his knuckles.
Brown Suit sucked in one cheek and nodded at her. “One of these times, Gwen . . .”
She looked back at him and sneered. “Are you still here?”
He said, “One of these times, you’re gonna go too far.”
She twinkled her fingers at him. “Drive carefully.”
He turned around, carried his glass over to the bar, walked down the back hall, and disappeared out the door. Before the door had even swung closed behind him, the girl was heading for Snake Man. He stood up. She walked right into his open arms and they kissed.
I thought, Wow. She’s some piece of work. Then I caught a patch of brown in my peripheral. I looked. Brown Suit had returned and was standing at the far end of the bar watching them kiss. He stood there blank-faced for a full five seconds. Then he turned and walked back outside.
The thought went through my mind that maybe he was going out to his car for a gun. I moved to a position beside the cigarette machine and leaned my elbow on top of it. I figured that way, when he returned, which I was sure he would, I could step up behind him and grab his arm.
I waited and watched the back door. Five minutes went by. At the bar, the blonde and Snake Man were sitting side by side now. She had her arm up around his shoulders and they had their heads together. He whispered something in her ear.
Another five minutes went by. Danny finished his practice session and his set got under way. A few people came in the back door, but none of them was a pissed-off old guy in a brown suit with a big ole gun.
After five or ten more minutes, I went outside into the icy January night and walked up and down the rows of cars in the shadowy parking lot, looking to see if he was sitting in a car out there anywhere, but he wasn’t. The only people I saw were Gruf and Tiny, who were standing about halfway up the narrow alley, sharing a doobie.
I said Cool and headed back inside to catch the end of Danny’s set.
I stopped beside Bump. “There’s a tall blonde on the Ladonia team. Gwen something. She’s sitting over there . . . ”
He interrupted. “Yeah. What about her?”
“What’s her last name?”
“Dillon. Gwen Dillon.”
Danny won his game and his set in his next turn. I was listening to his triumphant play-by-play when I felt a light nudge in the ribs. I turned around to see Mule standing there. His cloudy burn-out eyes blinked shyly up at me.
“Tiny wants to buy you and Danny a beer.”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. I looked to the back side of the bar and saw Tiny hunched there, watching us. His nose and cheeks were still pink from being out in the alley with Gruf.
Danny said, “Cool.”
We followed Mule around to the Members Only seating area on the back side of the bar, which Gruf had created so the regular barflies wouldn’t be bothered, and vice versa, by the well-dressed yuppies and grays who were flocking in droves to our fancy new dining room.
Princess was working the back side of the bar. Tiny gestured along the line of Danny, Mule, and me, and told her, “Beers.”
But Princess knows I don’t drink, so she looked at me and said, “Iced tea, Terry?”
Mule gave me a funny look. “Are you an alcoholic, Terry?”
I nodded. I don’t know what the technical definition of alcoholism is. My definition is, if screwing up your whole life seems like a good idea to you when you’re drunk, you’re an alcoholic. By my definition, I’m the fuckin’ poster boy.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I sat on the back side of the bar with Tiny, Danny, and Mule for a while, enjoying my iced tea and watching the action. I noticed that the Red Hot blonde left Snake Man sometime along in there and wandered back over to the table where her team was shooting. Off and on I noticed her circulating around the bar, chatting up one guy after another.
Then I got interested in Bump’s set and before long Danny and I thanked Tiny for the drinks and walked back over to the table to watch Bump’s tiebreaker game, which he won. After Bump’s set, Gruf took a girl from the Terminators to school. His win gave our team a clean sweep.
I got caught up in the celebration and forgot all about the blonde and Snake Man. Sometime later, when I glanced around the bar looking for them, it seemed like they were both gone.