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What Happened At The R&R? by Ace ToscanoThrough the thin film that veiled the new day came a familiar but muffled click. On most days this sound would have been enough to hasten his passage from realm to realm, but today, wanting desperately to remain submerged beneath the peaceful, pleasurable cover of sleep, he chose to ignore it.
Fluttering through his mind were the recurring images of ball after ball, shot after shot, guided only by his touch, rolling surely over an edge of green and disappearing, finally, into the eternal darkness of the side pocket. There was something marvelous, even masterful, about the control he had over the movement of those brightly painted balls. Yet, it wasn't this feeling of mastery that he was struggling to maintain--it was the overwhelming sense that nothing else mattered.
He had already managed to forget the click when a devastating roar rocked his senses. His first thought was that a DC 10 was about to crash through the wall. He sprang from the bed, flew to the window, and anxiously tore back the shade. There was no crashing jet. Instead, he was struck square by a gleaming fist of sunlight. Back, back, back from the fiery window he reeled, writhing and twisting, hands raised to ward off the blazing barrage. Then, his head cleared and he suddenly realized that the shattering blast wasn't coming, as he had first thought, from outside his room, but, rather, from within it.
Quickly, his eyes swept and re-swept the tiny cubicle, coming to rest finally on the plastic clock radio that was screeching static from its perch on the dresser. Groping forward, he stretched his arm toward the blaring box, tripped the off-switch, and fell trembling backwards onto the bed. The dream had dissolved.
Could he recapture that calm? He dragged himself up to the headboard and propped his head against the pillow. Shooting across the ceiling were yellow spears of sunlight which, having eluded the guard of the still swaying shade, flooded the room in spasmodic waves. He squeezed shut his eyes, drew his blanket up over his head, and forced his thoughts back to last night's game.
"I'm Billy, Billy From D'Bronx," the kid said brashly.
Was there no end to the Richies and Billies brought forth from that quarter.
Noooo?" gasped Stroker in mocked astonishment, adding blandly, though the kid already knew, "And I'm Stroker Smith."
The exchange sent a ripple of laughter bouncing around the pool hall. Stroker retreated to the tiny back room that housed the cues of the regular clientele. Staying there twenty minutes, he used the time to gently sand the shaft of his stick and carefully reshape its tip. And Billy, poor Billy, not realizing that the game was already on, became increasingly annoyed by the elapsing minutes, breaking the silence now and again with cries of "Where d'hell is he?" "What d'hell's he doin'?" and "HEY! YOU GONNA PLAY OR WHAT?"
But Stroker continued the stall. "Givin' the butterflies time to hatch," he called it. He had once heard it said, and he cherished this description, that he had a hundred ways of winning, only ten of which involved a cue. He wasn't just good, he knew how to win. And he did. Still, the suburb-bound shuttle continued to deliver the likes of Billy.
Stroker returned. The knowing eyes of the gallery, anticipating the kill, saluted him with silent cheers of admiration--silent, but not undetected.
"So you wanna make a game with me, huh?" he said, dropping balls one through nine into the rack and pushing the tight diamond cluster to the spot. "How 'bout some nineball, twenty a game?"
Billy hung for a moment, pinned by the prongs of Stroker's stark gaze. He wanted to appear unruffled but...
"But," he started in a barely audible vibrato that betrayed the nervous throbbing of his inners, "but, I wanted to play straight...straight pool."
"Straight pool?" roared Stroker as he carelessly flipped the rack to the floor and whipped a glance at the spectators. "Straight Pool? I can't play you straight pool--my tuxedo's in the cleaners." The onlookers laughed. "If you're playin' with me, Billy from the Bronx, it's nineball, cinco-nueve, that's the only game I know."
Billy seemed less ambitious, less confident, in the glow of Stroker's roguish grin. Still, he consented to go on, even though it was already clear to most who would win and who would lose. There had been a time, long ago, when Stroker might have been thus intimidated, but those times laid buried beneath a mountain of yesterdays. Nothing, not anything, could rattle him now.
"Stroker opened his eyes and glanced at the clock. It was after three. Instinctively, he fished a pair of brown corduroys from the heap beside his bed, pulled them on, pushed his feet into a flattened pair of black loafers and, then, ventured quietly out of his room, down the hall to the community john. Standing poised above the bowl, he lifted his hand, still blue with chalk, to soothe an itch that had sprouted up behind his ear. His fingers brushed the stiff black and gray stubble of a four day beard. Maybe tomorrow he would shave. Finished, he jerked the chrome lever and watched as the toilet gulped down the stinking yellow liquid and replaced it quickly with clear water.
Avoiding the mirror, he rushed back into the hallway and retraced the path to his room. He donned a faded and wrinkled orange dress shirt, topping it with a matted gray-green mohair sweater that was flecked with tiny gray balls of fuzz. As quick as that, he was ready to depart.
As he wound his way down the dimly lit staircase, skipping light-footedly, pivoting briskly at each landing, he found himself comforted by the trochaic patter of his heels. It brought to his mind the sweet clicking sounds of the pool room. Soon he would be there. His weight shifted to the balls of his feet as he cautiously entered the downstairs corridor. He was hoping to avoid a needless confrontation with Ma Grogan, the super, whose apartment guarded the front door. Unfortunately, before he could make his exit, she appeared, arms folded, at her apartment's door.
"Strokah," she whined, eyeing him critically from head to toe, "laundry today?"
"Uh... no," he said, side-stepping toward the door, "not today. I'll have it tomorrow."
He had known her for sixteen years, since before her old man died leaving her to manage alone, and during those years she had faithfully sent his laundry out every Monday, changed his bed linens once a week, and, on occasion, had even nursed him through illness. Still, he felt little affection for her and was uncomfortable in her presence. He wanted to get out.
"Now wait a minute," she commanded, ducking into her apartment. "I have something for you."
"No, not another sweater," he thought, half tempted to make a break while he had the chance. Well, just a moment more and he'd be on his way. Absentmindedly, he re-raked the area behind his ear.
From inside the apartment he could hear Grogan's slapping footsteps fading in and out as she traveled from room to room. As she approached the door she was whispering to herself, "Ernest Smith. Mr. Ernest Smith," as though she was reading it from a...
"GOD! Why won't she let me go?"
"Here. It's a letter from Syracuse."
A fat envelope dangled from her outstretched hand. Stroker made one clumsy stab at it, failed to connect, and, then, with a second, snared it. Shoving it deep into his front pants pocket, he mumbled a word of thanks and pushed his way through the door to the waiting, glaring street.
"Damn that friggin' radio," he thought. "What a lousy way to start the day."
Stroker sped through the jeering streets, zigging and zagging around throngs of cold and narrowed eyes like a fleet-footed broken-field runner. His spindly legs churned wildly, his heels pounded a hollow cadence against the pavement, "Pool's my life. Pool's my life. Pool's my life." Down the cracked slate sidewalk of Mt. Prospect, across the railroad tracks and through the litter strewn alleys of the east end, he flew, desperately fleeing a legion of haunting specters, desperately driving down the one path that for him held meaning.
He turned onto East Main. His target, the pool room, was less than a block away.
Now's the time, Stroker. Turn it on. Turn it on. You can lose them.
But that wasn't to be. Just then a vicious cramp bit into his thigh and forced him to his knees. He was easy prey now for the marauding forces that stormed onto the field of his consciousness. While he squeezed and prodded the throbbing knot in his leg, the letter in his pocket taunted him with a thousand crackling explosions.
The setting sun was still slinging its golden bolts when Stroker slipped furtively off the pavement and into the R&R Liquor Store. Inside, a moon-faced Chinaman, bleeding from his eye and lip, stood forlornly over a pile of shattered glass and a red-stained puddle of whiskey. As Stroker squeezed by, the man lifted his head and, shaking it from side to side, muttered, "It's a shame. It's a God damn shame."
Behind the counter stood an old rouge-faced woman, her eyes pouring tears. Stroker threw down his money.
"Pint of Fleischmann's, please."
With a small brown bag tucked against his chest, he drove head down toward the door and shoved it open with his shoulder. The moon-faced man jerked up his bleeding head. "Thanks, Stroker," he said. "Come again."
Rambling on beneath the pestering brilliance, stopping occasionally to knead away the tightness in his thigh, besieged by a thousand tormenting visions, Stroker moved away from the pool hall toward the wooded enclave that beckoned from the edge of town. He needed to be alone. Shrouded by a thick web of shadow, he pushed into the promised solace of the verdant sea.
He wandered aimlessly until finally he came to a secluded pit of tree stumps and dead grass. Here he stopped and dropped his butt to the cold, hard ground. Then he ripped the pint from its bag, broke the seal, and quickly took five long swallows. The brown glass pulsed in his hands. Again and again he brought the bottle to his mouth, until a heavy curtain fell over the frantic flashings of his mind.
He rose to his feet, groping for the path, clinging to that single strand of meaning.
"Pool's my life. Pool's my life. Pool's my life."
There was nothing else.
Shuffling along through the dead grass, he caught his foot in a gnarled root and fell sprawling to the ground. The earth whirled wildly beneath him, yet he wouldn't give in. With a determined leap, he regained his feet. Nothing could stop him now. Out of the cavern-like oasis, into the graying world of cement and steel, he emerged, plodding steadily despite a pronounced limp. Easing up at a corner, he bent down to massage away the screaming pain in his thigh. There at his feet was a storm sewer. He yanked the letter from his pocket, fingered its thick contents, and then dropped it, almost casually, through a slot in the grate.
Across the way, red and white lights flashed out front of the R&R. Digging his fingernail violently into the dry, scaly skin behind his ear, Stroker trudged onward, submerged beneath a blanket of darkness.
(This was my first short story, written back around 1974.)
© Copyright 2003- by Ace Toscano. All rights reserved.