I wrote this story when I was a very small Dark Lord indeed–if my file records are correct, and I fear they are, this is from over 25 years ago. I was recently looking at some of my (really) old work from when I was (very) young. I expected it all to be terrible, but I was wrong: only most of it is terrible. Granted, the bad stuff is painfully, burningly, miserably, excruciatingly terrible, the special kind of terrible that’s reserved for incredibly novice writers who are convinced that they will write like Harlan Ellison, not after a number of years of hard work and polish, but later that afternoon…probably somewhere between milk and cookies, and naptime.
I wanted to write a story about playing pool, a thing I loved then, and love now, though I’m not very good at it. Much of the rest was guesswork The betting seems a little awkward to me, although that just may be because I’ve never gotten good enough that I’d put down more than a “Okay, loser pays for the jukebox” wager. Similarly, can you tell that I didn’t know much about alcohol at the time? “Three fingers” of alcohol was the amount James Bond used to pour when he was displeased; I just figured it meant “a lot”. (I was wrong.) Furthermore, I’ve never met anyone who calls SoCo (“Southern Comfort”) just “Comfort”. And, good grief, the story has smoking in it, inside a pool hall. I haven’t been in a bar where you could smoke since….well, let’s just say that it’s been a long time. And while I’m picking nits, the critical play in this story isn’t actually a kick shot.
But I’ve left all that stuff in, even the ridiculous bits. I basically just corrected a typo or two (no autocorrect in those days! No automatic spellchecker!) – and left this as it was. I like this story. Also, I know I was a kid, trying to do an old-man voice. Kids do that sometimes. Rewriting it from an older and (hypothetically) wiser time in my life wouldn’t just kill the honesty of sharing one of my very first stories, it would also be cheating.
And I ain’t that kind of hustler.
Curly Ed leaned over, sighting squint-eyed down his cue. He looked peaceful, but we all knew it’d been about forty-sixty that he’d stick the lit end of his Camel on the outside of his face
when he’d stepped behind the bar to grab a light. He had the innkeeper’s curse–he liked to taste what he sold, and sometimes he forgot which side of the bar he was on. And it did him did him no good.
Like tonight when, stoked by Bud, primed with three fingers of the hard stuff, he’d ante’d up a week’s take.
Against Little Man Al.
It wasn’t the juice that had him. It was Ed’s table; for thirty years, when the day was slow, he’d pop a few and nine-ball until the evening rush. The little know-everythings from the college could buy him his weight in Comfort and he’d still twirl his stick under his right arm, growl cheerfully about The War, and presdigitate their book money into his wide back pocket. I’m pretty fair myself, but my mind remembers all too many Fridays when I came home
with half a paycheck or worse. Emma’d give me the unholy what-for, and I’d hear about it for weeks. There was this look she’d get in those hazel-dark eyes…Since she passed, I’ve played a lot, but never for money.
So Ed had it lined up, stood bent over, his gut on the hardwood. He stayed there too long, longer than you need to. I saw Frankie grin sardonically, and exchange a look with Sweet Lou,
his perpetual partner-in-crime–but he didn’t say anything. Nobody did. You shut up and let a man do his business. Jack, the baby of us at forty-five, took a good long pull on his longneck–if any of us thought Ed had a chance, he wouldn’t have done even that.
It happened, anticlimactic. A nice hit–but it’s the edge of the ball that gets you, and here Ed gave it a little too much English, a little too little arm. It came this close–but, as my grandfather always said, close only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades.
Ed winced, stood staring at the table for a minute, then turned away. He’d played a careful game, making sure to leave Al the worst shots in the history of pool, but that hadn’t held him
off before and it wouldn’t now. He began to pour himself something way too strong, as, with a rapid-rifle Mosconi shot, the Little Man snapped the white ball off three corners and tipped the three into a side pocket, leaving the cue lined up to pop the six-ball right down the same path. Which he did. Of course.
And that was that. All Al had to do now was tap the twelve into the two just hard enough to pocket the latter. This would leave the two so near the edge that it was a foregone conclusion, and the final shot on the eight could’ve been made by a toddler standing on a stack of phone books. Now, combos look tricky in the movies, and it’s true that I’ve seen a few go badly awry. But this one couldn’t have been straighter or easier if Ed had gone amongst the balls and moved them around by hand. That’s the beauty of watching a master walk the table–he places everything so well that his eventual win seems less a matter of
skill and more a matter of destiny.
Little Man Al chalked his cue with the imported dust he got from God-knows-where, and eased his ridiculous girth forwards. A slate table can weigh half a ton; we alway joked that, when the Little Man rested on it, he provided the other half. Al, taking his time, balanced
his stick, checked once more, and shot. As he was pulling his stick away, the air filled with choke smoke and accelerating glass, erupting into the room, the walls, and us. A voice rippled through my skull–not my ears, my skull–“Zob Norbidgqartke, give yourself up! This is the Intergalactic Police!” …only the word “police” wasn’t quite right, it was kinda twistslithery in my head, and Al turned, unzipping his flesh, resplendent in purple and orange scales with green stripes and black polka dots and pink hearts, firing some sort of enormous sluglike weapon through what had been the picture window of Fox’s Pub, big beams of light and heat
searing our skins even though we weren’t in their path. A gigantic metallic spider with pseudopods appeared in the window. Ed blasted it twice, but the thing held up some sort of box with legs and pressed a complicated series of what looked like Braille letters on
the side. Ed was encased in a great block of sunlight, and then both he and the spider were gone, leaving nothing but the wreckage of the bar.
We stared. If we hadn’t seen it, didn’t have the evidence of our own eyes, no way we’d have believed it. “Jesus,” I said. “Good God,” echoed Sweet Lou, the words sounding hollow and
awed. Frankie, for the first time ever to my knowledge, couldn’t say a word–he just stood there, frozen like day-old molasses in February. Ed was the first to move, taking a hesitant step forwards, shaking his head.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Never in my life would I have thought Al would miss an easy one-two combo like that one.”