By Kelly Kusumoto
Max was damn good at a game of 9-Ball. When he stared down at the table, his eyes would fine-tune his hands as if they were mechanized tools. A missed shot was like wisdom in youth. He was so good he would forego the lag and let his opponent choose whether or not to break.
He never played for money and he never played intoxicated. If a challenger offered a wager, Max would forfeit. If the opposition offered to buy him a drink, he would pocket the 9-Ball mid-game and wipe the chalk from the tip of his cue. Cigars and cigarettes would prompt the same response. As he walked away from the table he would always hear, “What the hell is his problem?”
“Ah, don’t worry about him,” another would say. Then they’d wait until he was gone before saying what they really thought.
“Guy’s a stuck-up prick…” Tom, the house referee said. “…But he’s the best prick who ever played a game of 9-Ball, so we put up with it.”
“Why,” asked the challenger?
“He don’t play for money, so’s the same as havin’ a free lesson. You don’t need to buy him drinks an’ you don’t need no conversation. We lose every game but it’s a win-win if you ask me. He’s awkward to boot but he’s harmless.”
Max stood outside the pool hall. He was staring blankly at the wet street. Light from the lampposts reflected into Max’s eyes. The delicate, almost floating rain was dancing more than falling and seemed to put Max into a catatonic state.
“Hey partner,” said a man in an all black suit. “I’ve been watching you play.”
Max gave a nod as if acknowledging the man’s presence but did little else to engage.
“You’re damn good at a game of 9-Ball.”
“Suppose I am,” said Max.
“Your hands are like machines.”
Max looked up at the man for the first time and saw how out of place he looked.
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners,” the man said. “My name is Grimson.” He held out his hand.
“Max,” he said avoiding Grimson’s hand.
Grimson’s eyes were slow and methodical as if he were peering into Max’s soul. Max looked back down into the collected rainwater. Grimson stood there as if waiting for something. It was Max who now felt awkward.
“Don’t have a lot to say, do you?” asked Grimson.
Max shook his head and tapped his foot. Little did anyone know that Max was always the one who felt awkward.
Grimson lit a cigarette and let the smoke rise up into his nose. He had the appearance of a well-refined man; a man of culture and education, a man raised a world away from Spring, Texas. Yet here he was in a pool hall in the middle of nowhere on a Friday night.
“You aren’t from around here,” said Max.
“I’m from everywhere,” Grimson said.
“What are you doing here,” said Max?
“I heard about a kid in Spring, Texas who was the best 9-Ball player since Teddy Fitz.”
“Teddy Fitz. Everyone says Alfred Mejia is the best but Teddy was right there with him in terms of skill. It was Teddy’s tact that put him on top, in my opinion. So when someone I heard some kid was knocking on the door, I get a little interested.”
“You play,” asked Max?
“I beat Teddy. Then he shot himself.”
Max looked up quite quick as if the thought of real competition roused a sense of drama he hadn’t felt since grade school. Grimson’s eyes were slowly peering into Max’s. Max felt exposed and vulnerable. He could feel his heart pounding from the inside of his chest like a new prisoner pounds the bars of his jail cell. His foot tapped faster than an up-tempo jazz hi-hat.
“You come from wherever you come from to play me,” said Max?
“I don’t play smokers.”
Grimson let his cigarette fall to the floor. The embers fizzled from the rain and smoke rose from underneath his foot. “I know.”
“I don’t play with drinkers.”
“And I don’t make wagers.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” said Grimson.
“But,” asked Max?
Grimson pulled out a nickel-plated, thirty-eight caliber pistol from his jacket pocket. Max noticed he was wearing white gloves like the ones the Marines wear in full uniform. “If I win,” he said, “You meet Teddy tonight.”
Max could feel a knot in his throat but did not want to swallow. He did not want to give any indication that he was intimidated or even interested in taking this offer.
The funny thing was that Max was tired. He felt his existence futile, his life meaningless. This moment in time was the most alive he had felt in his entire life. He pulled out a black, nine-millimeter pistol of his own and held it out for Grimson to see.
“And if I win,” Max asked?
Grimson smiled. He looked up into the dark and cloudy sky. Raindrops landed diaphanously on his face. Methodically and very slowly, Grimson fixed his gaze back upon Max’s, his smile long gone. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Teddy. I guess tonight’s as good as any for a reunion.”
The two men walked inside. There might as well have been a spotlight on them. By now their weapons were again concealed, but the prospect of death was not. Patrons of the hall became onlookers. There was a weight carried with each step closer to the player’s table.
Grimson handed the cue ball to Max. “I insist,” he said.
Max took the ball and placed it behind the head string. He pocketed the one-ball, then the two. After pocketing the three-ball he said, “Tonight’s a good night.”
Grimson smiled and winked. “Sure is,” he said.
Max missed the four-ball. His heart sank. His skin went pale.
Grimson leaned over to aim and said, “There is no wisdom in youth.”
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Currently a Marketing Associate/Graphic Designer, Kelly Kusumoto is studying at Full Sail University where he is pursuing a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing for Entertainment.
He has written articles for a handful of Los Angeles-based magazines and has recently published flash fiction stories on various websites around the world.
He continues to hone his craft, creating stories that accurately display the human experience.
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