All I wanted, on my way to the Julian’s pool hall, was a simple meat loaf dinner in their precious step-down restaurant, but instead of leaving right away I dropped in four quarters at the back table to shoot around. One of the guys at the bar asked if I wanted a game—eight ball of all things—and would I like to make it interesting for, say, twenty bucks. He was skinny with rats’ eyes and a fat mouth, which fell into a pout after I whipped him before he had a chance to shoot. Soon his opposite, a moose with a Yankee hat and flabby cheeks, asked me to try him if I thought pool was so funny. So I took care of him too, for another twenty, after he didn’t sink a ball off the break and left things wide open for me.
Both of them sat on red stools and brooded during my third game—again eight ball, and again for twenty bucks—this time against a muscular man with a thin beard, maybe the owner’s son. When I buried the cue ball deep in the pile off the break, he gave me a dull from-under stare and took a year lining up his first shot. I wondered why he’d ever bothered picking up a stick since he hardly knew how to hold his. Finally, he only grazed the top of the cue ball. It rolled a few inches, and he reached to try again.
“You shot already, that’s a scratch,” I said, annoyed, grabbing the cue ball and moving him aside.
Soon all three sat together on their red stools behind one corner pocket and drank individual Polish beers. They took turns exchanging looks with the bartender and glaring at me while I finished up with the solids and nailed the eight ball hard into the corner pocket nearest them.
They were fuming—all three of these wise men—and I had to laugh for a second before scooping up my third straight twenty dollar bill.
“It’s only a game, fellas,” I said, and hurried up the stairs and onto First Avenue before they had a chance to move off their stupid red stools.
From an outside table at the bagel and coffee place on Third Avenue, I watched people walk by in front of me and across Cooper Square. I’d broken one of the twenties for a roll and coffee and wanted to break the other two and get them out of my pocket before going home to Brooklyn. Men and women strolled or swept by me, some in groups, but most of them alone. None of them glanced over at me, even from only a few feet away, so I didn’t have to pretend to look away. I examined their faces—a long-time habit—and played one of my category games, this time by guessing at the number of good people vs evil people. But it was a waste of a game: at least a hundred people passed, and I couldn’t make up my mind about any of them.
Two cars braked hard at the yellow light in front of pedestrians already crossing Third Avenue.
It was only that morning that Cal had stopped me outside my building on Union Street and asked me if I’d heard about Cindy Greenberg—that she’d been rear-ended by a truck on the LIE.
“Greenberg from high school?”
“Yeah, she went instantaneously. That’s what I heard,” he said.
“Holy crap—” I looked at the line of trees near the curb and at the light blue sky.
“So, it was fatal. She was what—our age?”
“Yeah, only thirty.” I shook my head.
“Twenty-nine in my case, pal. I’m just a baby.”
“Anyway, it was instantaneous, and it just shows you how, you know, you never know. You know?”
“You never know when the man upstairs will call your name and say, hey, time’s up, buddy. Get up here, or go down there, in your case.” He laughed.
“Wow.” I brooded at the brownstones across the street.
“Well, it’s no joke when you suffer a rear-end.”
“I forgot all about her until just now.”
“Well, what are you gonna do. Life’s no game. It’s no joke. Anyway, it was fatal and instantaneous, and that’s that.”
I spotted him across the street—the second player with the fat face and the Yankee hat—standing at the bus stop looking up Third Avenue as though for the bus. I sat up straight, and curled my hands around my coffee Styrofoam, feeling its heat. The M22 downtown bus was stopped at the 8th Street intersection, and I waited for the red light to change and free it.
It had been more than ten years ago, when I was a senior in high school, that I was forced by Mr. Connor to work at a Saturday health fair booth with Cindy Greenberg. I’d cut two of his classes, so he gave me only detention at first before I pissed him off at a practice game for the baseball team. I’d pitched for one side, coached by Mr. Dunbar the assistant, and Jason Edwards pitched for Connor’s side, and after I struck out the last batter, Connor stood in my way as I came off the field. “Nice game, Tommy,” he said, and stuck out his hand.
“Get out of here, I’m not gonna shake hands with you,” I said and smirked, just kidding around, but he took my feet out from under me and slammed me to the ground. His forearm pressed against my neck and his red face was inches from mine and his mustache shook. “Now do you wanna shake hands?” he screamed twice, and I squeezed two fingers through his arms and let out a strangulated, “Nice game Mr. Connor.” He got off me and stormed away, and by the time I got up he was swinging a baseball bat over and over at the backstop post until the bat broke. The whole team watched him, quiet.
Released by the green light, the bus rolled toward the fat head, but then accelerated past him. He was still there looking up Third Avenue as if for another bus. I glanced at those seated around me, then spotted the muscular boss’ son with the thin beard, the sorest loser of all, standing at the counter waiting to order.
“What the hell.” I looked from one to the other, and peered down Third Avenue for the skinny guy, but I didn’t see him. “It was just a friggin’ game. These bastards.” The subway was all the way across St. Marks’ Square in between them, and it was a long way down 7th Street on my side back to the Second Avenue bus or subway. I was in their stupid neighborhood, not my own neighborhood where they’d have gotten themselves pounded just for showing their faces. My heart thumped fast and I blew out a breath to slow it. “I’m waiting you bastards out, then,” I said, my voice clipped and shaken.
Mr. Connor had punished me extra by sticking me with cheerful Cindy Greenberg working at a Saturday health fair. She spent the afternoon inhaling from the helium balloons and talking to me and to the visitors in different kinds of munchkin voices. “Are you kidding me?” I asked her more than once, and she answered with the helium voice that of course she was kidding. “You should make the best of getting—” she had to suck in another shot of helium— “of getting in trouble.” Later she added in her normal voice, “But that wasn’t right, what Mr. Connor did,” before inhaling helium again and speaking rapidly until it wore off. “Because it was just a game a game a game…”
The year before that, on a school trip to the Amish country, I was in a van with her and a bunch of others, who rolled on the van floor laughing when she wondered how cows did it. “Do the girl cows lie on their backs?” she wanted to know. I sat on a milk crate in back and smirked a little, hiding that I didn’t know how cows did it either, but the others—like me, from Brooklyn, where there were no cows—laughed like they’d known from infancy exactly how cows did it.
The boss’ son ate a roll near the door, half facing my way but looking out into the street. Flab Face was still at the bus stop. He turned to look downtown, slowing his head enough to take a peek at me. I laughed to myself. The skinny guy with the fat mouth was nowhere, but I watched the corner of Seventh Street, imagining that he was on the other side of its first building waiting, as the third side of their stupid triangle. I went to the counter, close to where the boss’ son stood, and ordered another roll and coffee, breaking the second twenty. Then I sidled next to him, coffee in one hand and roll in the other. “You guys want your money back? You can have it.”
He looked at me like he didn’t know who I was.
“All I wanted was a friendly game, but you wanted to play for money, so I don’t know what you’re mad about.”
He still looked at me like he didn’t know me, until, “You better run home to your mom, son.”
I shrugged and turned away and sat at a different outside table. The coffee was hot, so I took my time, dunking my roll and butter little by little.
When English class ended, the Monday after the health fair, Mrs. Driscoll wanted to talk to me about a paper I’d written, one in which I called coaches in general evil people. She wanted to know why I thought so, but I shrugged. Cindy Greenberg had stayed after class to help Driscoll sort papers.
“You’re so good, Cindy,” Mrs. Driscoll told Cindy when she was finished.
“Her name’s Mini Mouse,” I said, and Cindy laughed, too hard. I headed for the door.
“She’s good whatever her name is,” said Mrs. Driscoll.
“You too, Tommy,” she called, and I stopped at the door.
“I said you too. You’re good too.”
Cindy had looked up, and I smirked at them both. “I don’t think so.”
Later that spring, Kevin Barboni sucker punched me in the cafeteria for staying all night at Laura’s when her parents were away. He’d heard about it, probably from one of Laura’s stupid friends, and so when I was on line for pizza he came up from behind me and slammed me full in the face. I hit the floor hard and wound up on my hands and knees, watching blood spill from my mouth.
“Sore loser,” I repeated, laughing, until a couple of guys pulled me up.
I never touched Barboni after he clocked me. I just let it go. But I stopped talking to Laura, my longtime neighbor, pal, and the not-so-secret love of my life; and I kept it up through the rest of high school and even after she left for college. Then I went out at three in the morning sometime that October, stabbed Barboni’s driver-side tires, and went back upstairs to sleep.
The boss’ son had moved to the sidewalk and faced directly my way. The big guy was still in his spot at the bus stop, and he shrugged to the Seventh Street corner—as if to someone. I got up for another coffee, my heart racing.
The coffee was hotter since I’d asked for a large black with no sugar. From the sidewalk, the boss’ son turned to me with his dull stare.
“Uh, I just want to ask you—” I said, approaching him. Then I shoved rather than flicked the coffee full into his face and took off down 8th Street toward Second Avenue, dropping the cup after half a block. I crossed Second Avenue against traffic and raced along 7th Street to First Avenue, dodging people with dogs or people alone or people strolling in large groups. Then I cut through the Village View projects on First Avenue and came out near Avenue A where I guessed at my chances if I hid in the corner bar on Houston Street. Instead, with no sign of the threesome behind me or down either side of the block, I ducked into the Cardinal Spellman Center on Second Street and Avenue A. An older guy at the table held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa!”
“Is there open gym?” I asked, panting. “For basketball?”
“No, they got a game going on upstairs.”
“Can—can I watch?”
“Sign in and show me ID and you can go up.”
“I don’t have ID. Crap—” I stood there.
He frowned. “Just sign in. Print your name neat so I can read it clear.”
I printed “Tommy,” and then “Greenberg” after that.
The game had just begun. I sat in the middle of the bleachers, watched the gym doors for the restaurant goons, and listened to the crowd and the coaches scream at the referees and at the players. After a while I focused on the game and only glanced at the doors. One of the teams was losing by more than twenty points and the players looked as though they’d lost loved ones. I studied their faces during a time out and imagined that Cindy Greenberg was next to me, telling me in her helium voice that everyone was all too serious about winning and losing, that it was all just a game, a game, a game. Then her real voice slid into me…that was wrong what they did, Tommy…and Mrs. Driscoll joined her…You’re good too, Tommy…and I brooded out at the court, like a loser.
Lou Gaglia teaches middle and high school English in upstate New York. His fiction has appeared recently in Cobalt Review, FRiGG, Eclectica, Knee-Jerk, and elsewhere. Poor Advice, his first collection, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books, and his short story “Hands” was runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award.