The room is silent except for the crickets in the grass out back, and the click-swish, slick-wish of the sprinkler. We perch on stools around my walk-out — some neighborhood guys, and my two best friends: Red and Jim.
We grew up inseparable, digging roads for Matchbox cars, building boats out of grocery pallets, flopped on shag carpet watching TV. When our mothers got tired of us, they’d send us to the sandlot so they could do in peace whatever it was that mothers did — make casseroles, drink highballs, sell Tupperware to each other, that sort of thing.
Red was a god, three years older than Jim and me. He was the homerun hitter, telling us to go deep as he tossed himself a pitch and swung for the fences. We ran and ran, and he’d yell what pansies we were, what klutzes. Every time we were standing in right field, he’d aim for left.
When we’d had enough, he’d tell us to race him around the bases. He was a big guy, and we were faster. I tried to let him win once, and he punched me in the face for it. After that, we left him in the dust every time.
Under the stands, Red would share cigarettes taken from his dad. We’d laugh at Jimmy’s crazy jokes and cough until we threw up. We’d forget about having to shag balls.
Jimmy never did hit a baseball, or catch one. The problem was, he couldn’t see. I think his life got better once he gave up his pride and started wearing those thick glasses. He was a smart guy, knew the trivia on TV, quoted famous people, did math in his head. Maybe he could have done something better than shooting pool, but he’d spent too many years half-blind.
Anyway he’s got glasses now, and I think he sees things no one else does, especially when he shoots pool. He’s almost a professional, makes more money playing at the bar across from the wire factory than he makes at his job inside the factory.
When it’s just us, he’ll trade us shot for shot a while. But half way through the game, he always maybe screws up some easy shots. He never lets on, but I figure it’s so we don’t lose by too much when he goes for his final run. Once he gets going, he takes everything on the table, whooping and hollering as he sinks our hopes.
We’re halfway into the second case of beer, and nobody cares that it’s the cheapest kind. We’re here to watch Jimmy play pool.
A breeze kicks up, and the air is gritty but it’s a relief. In a radio weatherman voice, Jimmy says, “Cooler by the lake!” We laugh. It’s the third time somebody’s made that joke tonight and it’s funnier than it was the first time. Cottonwood seeds float in the air, drifting into the fluorescent lights.
The shaft slides, strikes its target. The contact is perfect, the angle is better than perfect, and the spin? The spin! We watch the whole thing like a ballet, and then jump in surprise when a high voice squeals, “Ooh! I got lightning under my skin, Jimmy — lightning!”
With a solid clack, the cue ball strikes a solid, which strikes another, and together the two solids slip into the pocket. Jim is still using that girly voice when he calls his next shot. “Pretty red, hot corner pocket, honey, nice and solid and hard and slow and — ”
Rrrrrip. The stick tears into the manicured green of the table, my table, that I worked overtime for three months to get. I’m about to yell how I just got it re-felted, and is he going to pay for it. But then I see — my eyes follow the stick up to Jim’s arm to his neck, where Red’s paws are squeezing out all the air. Red picks Jim up by his purpling head and walks around the table.
Red leans over the pocket that Jim pointed to — and starts slamming Jim’s head into it.
Hands. Off. My. Girl. You. Bastard.
He emphasizes each word with another head-slam.
We’re frozen for a moment, and then we all react at once. Red’s got Jim trapped against the table, blocking us with his big body. We’re pulling on his arms and neck and shouting but Red is a mountain and nothing is going to stop him until Jim is unrecognizable. His glasses are shattered into his face. The focus pops back into Red’s eyes and Jim slips to the floor, groaning.
Red walks away, then turns to look at us, eyes flared like his welding torch. “She only says that to me. Before she has her — when we — oh, she is going to get it — ”
And then he’s gone, and I’m scrambling to call Lise, the police, an ambulance. The whole place is crawling with people I don’t know for the rest of the night.
I never got the guys together after that, never saw Red again. I ran into Jimmy at the grocery store. He looked like hell but he talked like the same old Jimmy. We made promises about getting together, and I sounded real sincere, but I walked away with a sick feeling in my stomach. I passed him in the street maybe two months after, and both of us turned away like we didn’t see each other. I was ready to be happy to see him if he called out, but he didn’t. We both kept going. If he looked back, I missed it.
I left the rip in the felt and put a cover over the table. Some things can’t be fixed, and a man has to move on if he wants to stay a man. I got a job with a trucking company and moved downstate a few years later. The table got left behind.
Kaylea Champion operates a highly portable analytical machine. A long-time resident of Chicago, she is originally from Oregon and can’t quite get used to the flatlands. Her fiction has also appeared in Voluted Tales and Spinetingler.