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May 13, 2024

Victory Highway (Part VI)

By John Trindle

More beer, more gas stations, more traffic, more. At one point a sign advertising wooden decoys caught his attention, another one directing him to the Cal Ripkin Museum. It seemed important now to keep driving, especially since he had the support of the Muffler Men. He drove for almost an hour, and the towns and intersections were closer together, and the traffic picked up. Soon he was downtown in a city, and out of beer.

"This'll never do, no, not at all!" he slurred, and noticed a gap in the line of parked cars up ahead. He swerved into the spot, tapping the car ahead with his front bumper, and backing up into the car behind. "Braille parking at its best." He had started fishing for change to put in the meter, when he heard a tapping on the passenger side door. He saw a sharply dressed man, in a double breasted suit, ascot with stick pin, and bowler hat, peering through his window. Mark rolled won the window.

"That's not necessary, we've taken care of the meter. We've been expecting you," the stranger murmured in a soft but compelling voice. "Come with me."

"Do they have drinks where we're going?" asked Mark as he noted another, less nicely dressed man slip a cover over the meter. The cover read: Out of Order, Municipal Parking Authority of Baltimore.

"They have everything you need where we're going. It's just inside this door."

"Whatever. I need a cold one." Mark got out of the car, a couple of Heineken bottles rolling out onto the concrete.

"Right this way. Your table's waiting."

"You sound like Louis Armstrong talking to Dolly Levi now. I'm not hungry, and don't feel like singing."

Nonetheless, Mark followed the well dressed stranger through the door. It was dark, like a bar, but there were pools of light scattered about the room. Ceiling fans turned slowly, to move the cigarette smoke to the filter vents. Some folks sat in high chairs against the walls, but many were standing, leaning over the tables, with expressions of great concentration. There was some chatter, and blues played softly in the background, but in general it was much quieter than a typical bar.

Near each table was an elegantly dressed gentleman, except in a few cases where there was the female equivalent. There was a sidekick at each one too, each wearing a green eyeshade and a striped shirt. In fact, the meter coverer was dressed the same way, Mark realized after he slipped off his jacket.

"Here's our table. Jack, rack them up." Mark's well dressed companion turned to him and said, "You can call me Nick."

A waitress appeared, short, blonde, with a low cut blouse and short skirt. Her legs, encased in sheer black stockings, went all the way up, a feature Mark liked in a woman. As she bent to retrieve a dropped napkin, he could see the top of one of the stockings. The hint of a garter clip implied even more interesting clothing was hidden above. She seemed to be taking a long time picking up the napkin. Mark could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

She stood up slowly, then dropped off a couple drinks on the narrow counter which ran along the wall near the table. One was a tumbler with ice and an amber liquid, and another a large glass containing a dark brown, nearly black liquid.

"Thanks, 'Tasha," said Nick to the waitress. Then to Mark, "Legend Porter, just what you like. On me."

"How did you know?"

"We know a lot about you, Mark Stratton," and Nick laughed. His smile showed all his teeth, but somehow never involved his eyes. "Let's play pool."

"I'm not very good. In fact, I can't remember the last time I played."

"Oh, I'm a bit rusty myself. How about eight ball, and I'll break?"

Mark took a long draught of his beer. "Sure, whatever. I'll play as long as you're buying."

Nick broke, sinking no balls. "Hey, good break for me, they're all over the table. Still open, Mark."

Mark sized up the situation, noticed that stripes had a clear advantage, but that he had a straight shot at a solid. He took it, and then missed his next one. "You're high balls."

Nick waved his tumbler and with a twinkle in his eye replied, "Got mine right here, partner." They traded control of the table back and forth, neither clearly superior in either offensive or defensive play.

Mark had lied, though, he did remember the last time he played. In fact, he remembered all the times he played. His family was also his team on the local pool league.

They had spent many a night together in the company of cues and balls and racks, hearing the clack clack of hard plastic balls against each other, and the incredibly satisfying sound of a ball dropping into a leather pocket. Laura was a life-long pool player, and had raised her children in the same tradition. "It's an indispensable life skill", she would say. "It brings together skill and luck and physics and psychology, self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-knowledge. And, it's always played where they serve beer. What else could you want?"

She had just started teaching him a few years ago, soon after their marriage. He was a quick study, with great table reading skills and adequate shot potting ability. No english, he hadn't learned about side spin before... Well, he hadn't. It was time to set up this fancy pants Nick to learn a little lesson in Classical Mechanics... and another in Human Nature.

At the end of the first game, it was down to the eight ball, which was near the head left corner pocket, with the cue ball diagonally opposite. Mark called the straight-in shot, but was a little off and rattled the eight off the pocket jaws. It was a duck to Nick for the win.

"Good game, pretty close there! You sure you haven't been playing for a while? You sharkin' me?"

Mark laughed shortly and denied everything. "I'll prove it to you. Anyone can win on a fluke. Let's play best of three."

Nick considered, and replied, "Yes, sure! But let's make it interesting.... a small gentlemen's wager on the side?"

The waitress brought another round. She looked sideways at Mark through heavy lidded eyes, and pursed her lips for a moment. Then she licked them slowly and smiled at him, and walked back toward the bar. Mark's eyes admired the show. He thought "Those lithe but muscular legs would look particularly attractive wrapped around my neck." He closed his eyes.

"Mark? You hear me?"

Mark's eyes flew open, and he regarded Nick with some disdain and a lot of weariness. "I don't gamble. I learned that in Atlantic City. I don't find throwing money away all that exciting."

"Who said anything about money? Let's see.... if you win... I'll get you a nice friendly kiss from our aitress. She owes me a favor, and the way she's been looking at you, she won't mind this one."

Mark was still looking across the bar at the waitress's progress. Not bad, not bad at all. He sighed inwardly and thought "Of course, she was just flirting because of the chance of a big tip."

"What if you win? You already beat me once, you know."

"If I win, you... tell me your dream. What you want more than anything else in life."

"That's it? If I win, I get her, and all I'm risking is telling you my three wishes?"

"Sure, why not? It's just for fun, right? Best two of three?"

"You're on, Nick. Rack them up, Jack."

Jack expertly gathered the brightly colored balls into the triangular rack, ensuring that the yellow One ball was in the front, the black Eight ball in the middle, and a solid and a stripe each occupied the remaining corners. He gently tapped the one and the eight to seat them in the felt, and removed the rack. He examined the arrangement of balls, found it tight as always, and was pleased Jack took his pleasures in whatever small ways Nick would let him, or didn't know about. And what Nick didn't know about wasn't worth mentioning.

They lagged for the first break, and Mark won. He broke hard, and sunk a solid. After surveying the table, he picked solids as having the advantage, and sank one before fluffing a hard shot at the second. "Damn."

"Well, let's see what I can do."

Nick had a run of three, each one precarious, each one leaving Mark beautifully set up in the event of a miss. The fourth, a miss, left Mark set up for a run of two. They then alternated sinking and missing, until Mark sank his last ball and called the eight.

"GREAT game!" said Nick, beaming. "My turn to break."

Nick broke more weakly than Mark, and didn't sink any. Mark had a run of two, and gave control back to Nick, who sunk one and then fluffed. Mark then sank one and took an easy cut at another... Unfortunately, though he got the easy cut, the cue ball caromed off the object ball and into the eight, which was hovering uncomfortably close to the pocket. The cue then followed the eight in.

"Aha! Eight ball and scratch! I win, I win!" Nick did a Tom Cruise (in The Color of Money) style dance around the table with his cue.

"Jeezus Murray and Guiseppe," thought Mark. "What the hell?"

Jack racked again, while Nick smirked at Mark. "Ready for another ass whipping?"

Mark, still rattled from his sudden defeat in the second game, broke weakly, leaving both solids and strips clustered around the eight. They both played poorly, and the game dragged on forever. At one point Nick disappeared while Mark was taking an easy shot at the side pocket, and just as easily missed the next. He sat down, and waited for Nick.

And waited, and waited, and waited. He got more and more irritated, and ordered another beer.

Nick returned from the men's room

"Hey Nick, you're up."

Nick seemed a bit disoriented. "What am I shooting again?"

"Highballs. Again."

"Yeah, they were floating until a few minutes ago, all right."

Mark laughed but it was really a rather poor joke.

Nick ran two balls, although his leave got worse each time. Finally he missed the third, leaving Mark set up with the chance of running the rest of his.

"There ya go, Mark, Bing! Bing! Bing!" and Nick sat down, taking a long swallow of his drink.

Mark froze. Laura used to say that, all the time, when they would play. It was a trademark psychological move of hers. How DARE he use her words against him? He glared at Nick, who was chatting up the waitress again, and felt the heat of his anger flush his face. He raised his cue stick as if to strike, and paused.

The room receded, sounds muffled, lights dimmed, and Mark was alone with his anger. It was a wild animal, capable of anything except reason. It was raw, emotional, Romantic in nature. It was not suitable for a cold analytical game such as eight ball. If he hit Nick, he'd be thrown out. If he played Nick out of anger, he'd lose. The only way to teach that son of a bitch a lesson was to beat him at the game he took such pride in, to out-shark him.

Mark lowered the cue stick, and the room returned around him. It still seemed somewhat distant, and he responded with a grunt as Nick repeated his statement, "Come on... bing! Bing Bing!"

And indeed, it was Bing as Mark picked up a corner duck, and returned the cue ball nearly the length of the table. It was Bing again as he tapped in another corner duck, drawing the cue back far enough to leave him with a nice easy cut shot into the side with the eight. Bing!

"Wow. Just... wow. That was *amazing*." Nick motioned the waitress over, and whispered in her ear. She nodded, put her tray down on a stool, and approached Mark who was stand there, staring at the table, as still as a statue.

"This is for you, honey." He could smell her breath, cinnamon, hot and spicy, promising adventure. She melted into him, tongue seeking his, her arms wrapped around his waist and hands dropping toward his butt. He could feel her nipples harden against his chest through her skimpy blouse. But still he stood there, muscles clenched in silent rage.

She stroked the back of one of his legs with her stocking clad ankle, and ground her pelvis into his. She took one of his hands and guided it up her leg. He finally freed his mouth from hers long enough to say, in a hoarse flat voice, "Thanks."

She released him, a flash of anger in her eyes. "It was nothing. Really. I mean it. Absolutely Nothing At All." Then she stormed back to the bar, where she started rattling glasses.

"That's it, then. I'm the winner."

"You sure don't act like a winner."

"Oh, I don't know about that. Just to show you I'm not a sore winner, I'll give you my wishes."

"So who cares now. You're not a man, you're a block of lead. Your wishes couldn't possibly be interesting."

"I'm telling you anyway. Then I'm paying my bill, and I'm leaving.

"I wish I were dead. I wish I had never lived. I wish I had never ignored my family, or tried to save my foolish pride by denying my mistakes. I wish life would just leave me alone. I wish... ah s***, what do you care?"

Nick sat and stared in silence in a moment, as Mark put the cue back in the house rack. Then, in the sliece of one of those freak moments when a dozen conversations pause at the same time, he said "I can fix you up."

"What's that supposed to mean? I've tried the drugs, the gambling, and the alcohol doesn't seem to help much at the moment."

"You have a tormented soul. For good reason, of course, but that's what you have. I can fix that."

"Are you going to Bring me to Jesus?" Mark bit back sarcastically.

Nick chuckled and exchanged a glance with Jack. "Not exactly."

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-06-23
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