The sign outside the bar read “Cheap Drinks! Free Pool! Live Music Combo!,” but the combo on stage consisted of one guy in a Santa hat with a Casio keyboard. He was singing John Denver’s “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas)” in a dim light.
The Broken Bells Tavern stood, naturally enough, at the dead end of Broken Bells Road. It was close enough to my apartment that driving there wasn’t a pain, but also far enough away that I could feel like I was going out for a night on the town. I was sitting at the bar, alternating Schlitz on tap and shots of Jägermeister, the smell of spilled beer and holiday despair swirling around me.
There were only a few of us in the establishment and none of us were sitting together. I suppose I was the one being the most sociable, since I was at the bar and I could talk to the bartender if I so desired. I didn’t desire.
I finished off the last of my beer, got off my stool and went over to the murky corner where the deserted pool table stood. I racked the balls and broke, sinking the ones I felt like sinking with no particular destination in mind. Nothing like playing pool by yourself on Christmas Eve! As I was finishing my second game, the “combo” started singing “Blue Christmas” with an unsettling faux Elvis lilt. It was the least festive thing I’d ever heard. That was the final nudge I needed to wrap up my game and head home for the remainder of the night.
I went to put the pool cue back in its slot on the wall, when a voice stopped me.
“Care for a game?”
I’d seen her sitting at a table, drinking by herself. Blonde hair in a ponytail, flannel shirt, jeans. She looked like she might have a touch of the holiday doldrums, but a subdued air of confidence made it seem like she was okay with the melancholy.
I didn’t have anything waiting for me at home. “Sure,” I said.
I set up the table and we played a few quiet rounds, she didn’t have much to say and neither did I. Every time she missed a shot, she made a little frustrated noise under her breath; sometimes a sigh, sometimes a muttered word. I won two games and she won one.
“Care to make it interesting?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “How much?”
She thought for a moment. “Twenty a game.”
I gave a small laugh. “I can’t afford that,” I said. “How about ten?”
“Can I get you a drink before you take all of my money?”
“Vodka tonic,” she said, grabbing the rack and getting the table ready.
I walked to the bar and got her cocktail and bought myself another beer and carried them back over to the pool table. Casio Santa started in on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
We played three quick games. The balls click-clacked on the felt and sank into the pockets with a steady rhythm. She pretty much ran the table each time. After the first game, I knew she was grifting me, but I had enough cash to let it go on for a little while longer. I said things like “I’ll get you this time” and “Now you’ll see.”
After I gave her my final ten, we called it quits. In the gloom of Broken Bells we put on our winter coats and stepped out into the crisp December air.
“What’s your name,” I asked her.
“Thanks for the drink, Shane,” she said. She darted in and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.
“No problem,” I said. I smiled. “You run a good hustle. Merry Christmas.”
As she walked to her car, she said, “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
I stood and watched her drive away. The touch of her lips lingered on my skin. Then I got into my car and drove home, enjoying the lights on the houses and the snow on the lawns.
Locus Magazine once called John Weagly “a new writer worth reading and following.” His short stories have been nominated for the Derringer Award, winning one in 2008, and various other accolades. As a playwright, nearly 100 of his scripts have received over 150 productions on four continents.