Monday, October 11, 2010
"Why don't you give the jerk a lesson?" Web asks me.
We're at Leisure Time Billiards and Bowling Center, sitting at a tall, round table, drinking Pepsi. Irritated at the guy I'm watching play pool, I yank my chair closer to the table. "I will. But I want to see this chick play."
"You know who he is? I just figured it out."
"Brock Hurley," I say. "Might be the University of Iowa's starting quarterback this season. As a freshman."
"Think he'll recognize you?"
"Doubt it. Happened a long time ago."
Brock is swaggering around a seven-foot pool table, hustling kids out of their money, emptying their pockets and billfolds. Ten or twelve of us are standing or sitting. Spectators.
We're all at Leisure Time with our gym classes. It's spring, close to graduation. Seniors are restless this time of year. A few gym teachers at the three public high schools in town got this awesome idea to haul seniors here on school buses. A reward for graduates-to-be, an excellent way to spend a Thursday afternoon away from school.
It's a big complex with thirty bowling lanes in one part and thirty pool tables, all sizes, where we're seated in another part. Besides pool, kids can play air hockey, foosball, shuffleboard, and darts. Games played on machines that munch quarters.
"That's the third guy he's beat," Web says.
I bat my empty Pepsi can from hand to hand on the table. "He's good. And he knows it."
"I didn't realize he's so tall. What, six-five?"
"He talks too much, "Web says. "He needs his tongue nailed to his forehead."
I smile at my redheaded buddy, Webster Dalton. He usually doesn't say much, but Brock's got him ticked. Web's five-eight, maybe two-fifty. I never rag him about being fat, though, because I know how I hate to be called Shorty. Or One-eye.
"In a minute," I say, as Brock gets ready to break and polish off his next victim, a blonde chick who's been waiting for a turn at the table. She's the major reason I want to watch this game. She's dressed in a pink polo shirt and white shorts. Nice boobs and good legs. I have an eye for women. They're my main recreation. Pool's second. When I get a chance, I lift weights. I don't know how many girls I've hustled in high school, but since my breakup with Lacy Wells three weeks ago, I've been in a slump. I usually find someone else in a week or two. Things have been slow. But they're about to pick up.
Brock smiles at Blondie and brushes stray black curls from his forehead. "It's a money game," he says. "Ten bucks."
She pats the left-hand front pocket of her shorts. "Right here," she says. "My rack, your break."
At the foot rail, she racks the balls easily enough, which tells me she's played the game before. She's probably good. Otherwise, she wouldn't challenge Brock. I'm rooting for her.
"Eight ball," Brock says. "You know, where one person tries to sink all the solid-colored balls. The other person, all the stripes. You played that before?"
I scowl. "He's trying to intimidate her," I tell Web.
"Jerk," he whispers.
"I know," Blondie says. "The balls one through seven are solids. Nine through fifteen are stripes. You shoot all your balls in, then you shoot the eight, the game ball. It's black. You sink it, you win."
"I'm impressed," Brock says.
"Call your pocket. Ball-in-hand rules. Scratch on the eight, you lose."
Good for Blondie. Apparently she knows the game.
What wows me is that after she racks, Blondie ambles over to a table against the wall, picks up a leather cue case, unzips it, and produces her own cue. She comes back, screwing the cue together. From the looks of it, maybe a three hundred dollar stick. Cool.
I like the way she's hustled Brock, agreeing to the bet and racking the balls before letting him see her personal cue. Nice touch, which might unnerve him a little. A lot of this game is mental. I lean over our table and whisper to Web, "This could get interesting."
"I hope she stomps him."
Towering over her, Brock eyes Blondie's cue—she's about as tall as I am, which is five-three. On a good day.
"Only house cues allowed," he says.
I hate it when big guys throw their size around, picking on people smaller than they are. Nothing ticks me off more. It's my mission in life to shut these bullies down whenever I can.
"Nothing wrong with this one," Blondie says.
"House cues only," Brock repeats.
"Don't see that rule posted anywhere," I say, butting in. "She could use a broom stick if she wanted to."
Everyone's face spins my way. I feel Brock's dark-eyed stare on me. If he's going to recognize me, it should be now. But maybe not. We haven't seen each other in, like, ten years.
"None of your damn business," he says.
"Fair's fair," I tell him.
"He's right," Blondie says. "No rule anywhere says you can't use the stick of your choice."
Brock's gaze swings back to Blondie. I'm sure he's aware that everyone else's eyes are on him now. What's Brock, the football stud, going to say? Is he going to push a girl around in front of everyone? He's smarter than that. A smile ripples across his face. "Just kidding, sweetheart."
Standing erect at the table's head rail, he saws his cue back and forth in his bridge hand, warming up. He looks awkward, like he's all twisted elbows and knees. With his lanky frame, he has to bend low to get a level stroke for a power break. Besides that, he's left-handed, which makes him look even more awkward. But he has a long backstroke and a solid follow through, which can generate tremendous power when breaking, if he stays in control.
But he doesn't.
He does just what I expect.
He slams the cue ball into the rack, splattering the balls, but he blasts the cue ball so hard that it sails off the end of the table, everyone jumping back to avoid getting hit.
Hitting the cue ball off the table is a foul that gives Blondie cue ball in hand. Pissed, Brock rams the butt of his cue on the floor. Someone fetches the ball for Blondie and hands it to her.
"Thanks," she says, then circles the table, looking a little tentative, trying to decide on the better choice, stripes or solids. Picking solids, she places the cue ball behind the five for a straight-in shot into the right rail pocket.
"Stripes look better," Brock tells her.
He might be right, but he has no right rattling her.
She doesn't answer. Doesn't even look at him.
"Just trying to help," he says innocently.
Flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder, Blondie dinks the five into the side pocket and makes two more solids but runs out of easy shots. What she should do now is shoot at another solid, driving it to a rail, but hide the cue ball behind a cluster of balls so Brock doesn't have a shot. It's called playing safe. It's part of a good player's game. Amateurs call it dirty pool.
Instead of playing safe, Blondie makes an aggressive attempt at a bank on the two ball but misses.
My heart sinks a little.
Brock gives her a smug smile. "Told you the stripes were better."
Blondie steps aside, saying nothing.
Brock goes to work, slamming home five stripes, sending the cue ball in every direction with his flashy shot making. He might have run out, but one of his shots leaves the cue ball behind Blondie's three with only enough room for him to clip his eleven, which he does. But he doesn't make it, and he turns the table over to her.
Suddenly I'm feeling better about Blondie's chances.
Brock smiles and says, "Thought I'd give you one more shot, sweetheart, but don't miss." He flicks a curl off his forehead.
"Don't worry," she says.
"Want to bet twenty?"
I can't believe it. He's trying again to intimidate her, upping the bet. Whether she accepts his challenge or declines, he's put more pressure on her.
"All right," she says, and I cringe. She doesn't need the added pressure of a twenty-dollar bet.
"This guy needs a lesson bad," Web says.
"Nervous?" Brock asks, as Blondie surveys the table, chalking her cue.
She doesn't answer.
One thing about it, if she can run these four balls, she'll have a nice shot at the eight, which lies three inches from the right corner pocket at the head rail.
With a smooth stroke, nice follow through, she runs three balls, and I'm thinking, Yes! One more! Then the eight!
But she leaves herself a long shot with a sharp angle on her last solid, the seven.
"Bad leave," Brock says. "Tough shot."
I hope Blondie's in a zone, not hearing him.
I hold my breath.
She eyes the shot. Settles into her stance. Takes two practice strokes. In the middle of her back swing, Brock says softly, "Lots of green."
I want to fire up off my stool and club him.
Blondie jerks her cue in mid-stroke, and the cue ball hits the seven dead-on. The seven bounces off the rail, harmlessly rolling to the center of the table. She blew it. Brock finally got to her.
"That is so unfair!" Web says.
Blondie stands, shakes her head, and closes her eyes a second. But she doesn't say a word to Brock. She had her chance. She knows it. She let the guy rattle her. She turns away from the table, her shoulders hunched a little.
With a flourish, Brock drops his eleven ball into the left rail pocket. Plunk. The cue ball dashes around the table, hitting three rails and halts six inches in front of the eight—pure luck—leaving Brock with a little tap-in for the victory.
He swings up from the table and says to Blondie, "Twenty bucks, sweetheart. Another game?"
"Later." She fishes what must be two tens from the front pocket of her shorts. She hands him the bills.
"C'mon. Let's you and me do it again," he says, grinning.
"Later. Somebody else wants to play." Blondie brushes by him.
Web is right. This guy needs to be taught a lesson. Bad.
This is the perfect opportunity for me to break out of my slump, get to know Blondie, and help her win her money back.
Besides that, I'd love to put a hurt on Brock Hurley.
I owe him. Big time. From a long time ago.
"Find me a cue," I tell Web as I ease off my stool. "Twenty ounces. Straight."
I follow Blondie as she threads her way through the growing circle of fifteen or twenty kids who are gathering to watch Brock perform again.
I touch her shoulder.
She jumps a little and turns.
"Wait a second," I say. "I'll help you get your money back."
She looks at me curiously, her eyes a remarkable green.
She probably thinks I'm a ninth-grader. Besides being short and one-eyed, I'm baby-faced with dark-brown hair and freckles across my nose. Dimples when I smile. Or maybe she can tell at a glance that I see out of only one eye, my right eye. Some people, mostly girls, can tell almost immediately. Others never suspect. "I didn't mean to startle you," I say.
"You didn't." She unzips a pouch on her pool case and takes out a cloth to wipe away the sweat left on the cue's shaft from her hands. "I played pretty bad, didn't I?"
"He intimidated you—I hate intimidators."
"I'll get him next time. Trust me. Who is he?"
"Brock Hurley. He goes to North High. Mr. Football in Iowa this year. He's got a scholarship to the University of Iowa. Where do you go to school?"
"Really? That's where I go. I don't remember seeing you before."
She swipes the cloth up and down the cue shaft. "I moved here last semester."
"Let's get your money back. We'll talk Brock into playing doubles."
"I don't think he will. He's making too much money playing alone."
"What's your name?"
"Sean Duffy." I smile, flashing my dimples at her. "Everyone calls me Duff." I reach for her hand. We shake. Her palm is warm, still sweaty from the game she played. But her grip's like iron. I like that.
"Got a cue for you, Duff." It's Web who's come up alongside me. "Tip's so-so."
"Thanks," I tell him, frowning at all the nicks in the shaft.
Web gives Toby a shy smile, and I make introductions. "You shot well," he says to her, his face turning pink. Web's shy. He has trouble talking to girls.
"Sort of." Toby stows the cloth back in the pouch on her cue case. "You play him," she tells me. "Use my cue. I'll watch."
"I'll use a house cue."
"Don't be silly. Use mine."
She gives me her cue, and I nudge my way through the even bigger crowd that has gathered to watch Brock steal money from someone else.
What I see is totally shocking. To me, at least.
Brock is losing. That's cool.
What shocks me so bad is that he's losing to the tallest, most gorgeous pool-playing girl I've ever seen. I mean, I love good-looking tall girls, girls six-foot or so. They turn me on. They turn my heart to mush. Tall girls blow me away. I lust after tall girls.
Tall Girl is bending over the table, drawing down on the three ball. I'm facing her. Her white blouse falls away from her chest a bit, and I see the early slope of what must be magnificently creamy boobs.
"Put your eyeball back," Web whispers.
"I wonder who she is," Toby says.
Brock watches, sullen and silent.
Tall Girl sinks the three and then quickly circles the table, scoping out the rest of the balls. She breezes by me, her long black-haired ponytail bobbing. The light scent of her flowery perfume trails behind her. Intoxicates me. I glimpse her butt, beautifully rounded in maroon shorts, her legs way long and flawless.
I gulp and tell myself to get a grip.
Web says I lust after tall girls because I know I'll never experience the ecstasy of floundering in one's arms. It's like obsessing over something that you know you can never possess, and realizing that fact makes you want it all the more. Like craving a BMW on a McDonald's salary. Web says coveting something that is impossible to attain is pointless, plain and simple.
Tall Girl halts off to my left, chalking her cue.
Then she settles in over the table again.
She slashes the seven into the right rail pocket, nice shot, but what's even nicer is that the cue ball bolts down the table and punches the two-eleven-eight cluster, leaving the eight in the middle of the table. Beautiful.
She raps in the two, and then sinks the money ball, the eight, in the left rail pocket. Wow! I'm impressed with everything about her—her looks, her game. Everything.
But suddenly I feel like a rubber raft lost at sea, all at once punctured, air hissing out of me. Brock frowns at her. But at the same time, he plants a kiss on her mouth, which she tolerates for a second or two and then jerks her head away.
"Must be his girlfriend," Web says.
"Looks like it," Toby says. Then to me, "You going to play her?"
"No way. You play her. Beat her. Then get your money back from Brock."
"You afraid?" Web asks.
He's right: I'm afraid. I'm a lousy coward. But I can't tell Web and Toby that. So I shrug and say nothing.
Tall Girl sees me with a cue in my hand. She's caught me in a leer, my head tilted, as my eye enjoys a long journey over her body. She wanders over. I back up a pace. She steps forward, her lovely scent filling my nostrils again. I breathe a little deeper, hoping for complete intoxication.
"You looking for a game?" she asks, and releases the force of her bright dark-blue eyes on me. Her lips are bow-shaped with a wet-red glossy shine.
I shake my head. I'm feeling a little dizzy.
"Yes, he is," Web says.
I'd like to kill him.
"M-maybe someone else wants to play." My mouth feels embalmed. I look around the crowd, hoping someone else will step forward, but no one does.
While my heart pounds, she pulls at my sleeve and drags me to the table's foot rail like I'm her little boy and she's my mom. "Five bucks?" she says. "Just to make it interesting? Flip for break?"
I'm falling in love with her, right now, on the spot, at first sight. I'd die for her. "It's your table," I tell her. "Your break."
As I rack the balls, my knees shaking, I'm thinking I'd hate to humiliate myself by losing in front of Brock, especially since I mouthed off to him earlier. Worse, if I lose to her, she'll probably think I'm a totally insignificant little twerp.
But I remind myself that playing pool is the only time in my life when I forget about being short and one-eyed. On the pool table everyone's equal. Even when I have to use the bridge—a mechanical device a player uses when he can't reach a shot—I feel the same way. Everyone's equal. No one's got an advantage over me. If I lose, I seldom get pissed. My physical limitations have nothing to do with the loss. I lost because I didn't play well enough. Or I ran into a streak of bad luck. Or I tangled with a really good player.
Tall Girl leans over the table and slams the break-ball home, shattering the rack. The two ball dives into a side pocket.
"Way to go, Jo Jo," Brock says. "Beat this little fag's ass."
I flinch. I'd like to whack him alongside the head with Toby's cue. But I don't do or say anything. If I'm going to win, I need to stay in control.
Tall Girl shoots Brock a look as if to say, Shut up!
Then she strolls around the table eyeing the balls from every possible angle, decides to make two easy shots—three in the side, four in the corner—and then plays safe, hiding the cue ball.
Exactly what I would have done.
And so that's the way our game goes, a battle that finally comes down to the fact that Tall Girl has one ball left, six on the right rail. Not that tough of a shot, just a delicate cut sending the six rolling past the right side pocket and then tumbling into the corner pocket. The trick is to hit the six and the rail at the same time.
I'm dead, and I know it.
All my stripes are down, and the eight lies near the center of the table, but I'm still dead. The shot Tall Girl faces is no problem for a player with her skill.
She studies the six.
She strokes, and the cue ball—I can't believe it—glances off the six, not hitting the rail and the six at the same time like it should have. The two balls sail aimlessly round the table.
She straightens and shakes her head in disbelief.
My mouth hangs open.
An Ohhhh and an Ahhhh rise from the crowd.
But Tall Girl's disbelief, I think, is bogus. She missed that shot on purpose. I'd bet on it.
"What the hell was that?" Brock says. "I've seen you make that shot a million times."
"I'm not perfect. Like you."
She's left me with a bank on the eight, cross-side. Good angle. I can do this, I can do this!
I step to the table and say as calmly as I can, "Eight ball, cross-side," and point with Toby's stick at the pocket where I'm praying the eight will bury itself.
I stand over the shot a moment, deciding where I want the cue ball to hit the eight so it bangs off the rail at the right angle. I visualize the eight streaking across the table and falling into the pocket in front of me. I picture myself stroking steadily and calmly, plenty of back swing and follow through.
I nail the eight ball and win the game. Tough shot, perfectly executed. Sweet! I should be jumping up and down with joy, high-fiving Toby and Web.
But I'm not. I'm confused.
Tall Girl handed me the game. She let me win. I'm wondering why.
Tall Girl beams me a big smile.
"You could've beaten me," I tell her.
Her blue eyes are devastating, her teeth white and perfect. Shrugging, she reaches into her blouse and pulls out a five-dollar bill. "You're good," she says. "You know that? And cute."
I flush. Red hot. My ears burning. I hate that, being called cute. Puppies are cute. Babies, kittens, butterflies—they're cute. She wouldn't have said that to a tall guy. She'd have said, You're handsome. OrYou're a stud.
"Only you and my mom think I'm cute," I say.
"I haven't seen anyone around here for a long while who understands the game of eight ball. Especially your age."
That burns me even more. "I'm eighteen," I say, fighting to keep the edge off my voice.
She hands the money to me.
Our eyes lock.
I look away. Did she notice my left eye? Does it appear vacant? It's glass. It looks real. Except it has no life. "Thanks," I say, and stuff the bill into my pocket. "Hit the six and the rail at the same time with the cue ball and the game's yours."
She shrugs again. "That's okay. Everyone misses sometimes. "
"I don't get it," I say. "Why give the game away?"
"What's your name?"
"Mari Jo Moon," she says. "It's Mari with an i."
At that moment a guy with a fuzzy blonde goatee strolls up to me and asks, "You going to play another game, dude? Or what?"
"Your table, man."
"Cool," he says, and disappears.
I mean, I've got tall, beautiful Mari Jo Moon in front of me. I'm not going to let her go until I get an answer—Why did she let me win? But I realize I'm in trouble because Brock bursts out of the crowd. He grabs Mari Jo's hand and pulls her aside, toward the pinball machines, where it's less crowded.
I scoot along, not wanting to let her out of my sight.
"You should've beat him, Jo Jo," Brock says, swinging her around to face him.
"You saw the ball," she says. "Frozen on the long rail."
He sees I've tagged along. "You were lucky, you know that?"
"The Pool Gods are fickle," I say. "The better player doesn't always win. And I'm not a fag."
"Couldn't tell by looking at you."
My jaw is stiff, my teeth clenched.
"Brock!" Mari Jo steps between us, pushing him back with a hand on his chest. She's glaring at him.
"Sorry," he says to me, but I don't hear an apology in his voice. "What do you want now? She paid you, didn't she?"
I'm pissed; I'm stumped.
I want to talk to Mari Jo alone, but how am I going to get rid of Brock? I know I can't, so I shrug off his fag comment and say, "Look, we all shot pretty well. I'll get Blondie—the girl you beat—her name's Toby—and maybe we can find an empty table. Play doubles."
"I've had enough pool, I'm hungry," Brock says. He grabs Mari Jo's hand. "C'mon."
He turns to drag her away, but before she's pulled off her feet, she manages to mouth the words, "Call me!"
I swear that's what she says: Call me!
I thrust my hands out, palms up, and shrug, trying to let her know I don't know her number. Cell phone or landline. She vanishes in the crowd.
I don't dare run after her, letting Brock know I'm hot for his girl. And I've got Toby's cue. Where the hell did she and Web go?
I crane my neck.
"Who you looking for?" Web says. "We're right here."
I swing around.
"Hi," Toby says. " Awesome bank on the eight."
"Your cue made my day." I break it down and hand it to her. "Thanks."
"Let's get something to eat," Web says, all smiles. "My treat. I clipped Brock for ten bucks on a side bet. Then another five when I bet him you'd bank the eight ball."
Web and I bump fists. "Way to go, man," I tell him.
The tables, chairs, and stools in the snack bar area are already occupied with kids slamming down their food. So while Web volunteers to order for us, Toby and I wander off and find a wall to lean against near the restrooms. I figure this is a good place to wait and watch for Mari Jo in case she comes by. Then I can ask for her telephone number, if Brock isn't trailing her.
"Where did you learn to play?" I ask Toby. She has the nicest smile. I imagine she's someone easy to get along with. I mean, I've got a pleasant feeling about her, as if she's a very warm, upfront person. If Mari Jo hadn't suddenly popped into my life, I'd be hitting on Toby pretty hard right now.
"My mom. Her dad—my grandpa—was a contractor and opened up his own poolroom in Douglasville, a little town outside of Lexington, Kentucky."
"You must've played a lot," I say.
"By the time I was twelve, I practically lived in the pool hall. But I haven't played at all recently."
She shrugs. "It's a long story."
"So you came here this afternoon with your stick because—?" I let the question hang.
"Just to see how I'd feel about playing again."
I glance at my watch. One-forty-five. Soon teachers will start herding us back onto school buses.
Before I can ask Toby to tell me her long story and to ask why she's living in this nothing town of Big River, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Web shows up carrying three cardboard boats, a cheeseburger in each one, smothered with French fries.
At that moment four kids at a table are clearing out, so we dive for the empty chairs. Web hurries back to the counter for our Pepsis. When we all sit down and start eating, Web says to me, "When you were shooting, I told Toby about your dad's barbershop. With the poolroom attached."
If Web's hungry, he eats fast and tends to leave a little food clinging to his mouth—a dab of ketchup, a morsel of bun. I pluck a napkin from the holder and toss it at him. He always says he's going on a diet soon, but I've got to see it to believe it.
"Thanks," he says, and swipes at his mouth. "I told her maybe you guys could shoot a few games at your dad's place."
"Sure," I say. "Why not?"
I suddenly realize Web wants to keep this girl hanging around. He wants to hit on her. He hasn't had many chances. He knows I'm not in the way; my eye's on Mari Jo Moon.
At that moment, I spot Mari Jo wandering toward the restrooms, her head swiveling around—she's nearly a half-head taller than anyone else—like she's looking for someone. Me maybe! Brock's nowhere in sight. "Just a minute," I say, and push myself up from my chair.
"Where you going?" Web asks.
"Be right back."
I scoot up behind Mari Jo. I reach and tap her on the shoulder, then jump around in front of her so she doesn't have to turn. Her face breaks into a grin. "I've been looking for you."
"And I've been looking for you."
"I haven't got much time. Brock'll be pissed if he sees me talking to you. You want to play some serious pool?"
That sounds like a challenge. "Sure. When? Where?"
"Call me." She grabs my hand, I open the palm, and she slaps a folded piece of paper into it. "A telephone number."
"What about Brock?"
"Just call tonight. Around seven." She surveys the crowd, searching for him.
I search, too. He's not in sight.
"Got to fly," she says.
Suddenly she's gone.
I unfold the slip of paper and commit Mari Jo's number to memory. In case my memory fails, I jam the slip into my pocket. Don't ask me why, but I'm getting a shot at what must be the most beautiful, gorgeous, talented tall girl in the world. Me. Sean Duffy. Five-three. One eye. Cool. Very cool.
* * * *
If you enjoyed these first three chapters from The Hustle, you can purchase the book from amazon.com in its Kindle format. Don't have a Kindle for reading The Hustle? You can download the book to your Mac or PC. Go to amazon.com, Kindle Store, Jon Ripslinger. Click on The Hustle cover art. Click on Available on these devices. Amazon will provide a free application for downloading its Kindle books. You can also purchase The Hustle in an ebook format from Barnes and Noble.
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