50 • Hustle
Cameron pursed her lips and turned back, calling up the stairs. “Did you find your room, Joe? It’s the one—”
“—on the right. Gotcha. I found it just fine.”
“Everybody all set up here?” Will came around the corner carrying Joe’s suitcase under his arm.
“Hey, is that a billiards table in there?” Joe pointed toward the den where Will had just come from.
Will looked behind himself. “Sure is. Do you play?”
“It’s been a long time. So maybe it’s fairer to say ‘I played.’” Joe folded his hands over his belly. “But boy, did I play.” He smiled and nodded his head, proud of his past accomplishment.
“Is that right? Cameron says she used to be pretty good too. We should have a game sometime.”
“Well I’ve never quite gotten the hang of that billiards business, ” said Pearl. “But Mr. Phillips used to try to teach me a thing or two.” She had made her way to the top of the stairs and was holding tightly to the newel cap.
“Oh, here Pearl, let’s come away from the steps.” Will set down Joe’s suitcase and took Pearl’s elbow in his hand. “Yes, sure. I taught you everything you know.”
“We could play right now.” Pearl clapped her hands.
“Right now?” Cameron, who had been leaning absentmindedly against the wall, jumped. “I might have to take a raincheck on that. I was thinking to go home for a bite to eat and a nap. It’s been a long day already, you know?”
“Oh, no dear. I have a little lunch ready downstairs. But we could play one teensy game of pool first. Then you’ll have your lunch and you can go home for your nap.”
“Pearl, Cameron’s got a point. I’m sure Joe could use a little rest too.”
“Just one little game. What do you think, Mr. Murphy?”
“Well, remember, I’m a bit rusty. So maybe it wouldn’t take too long to clear me out.”
“Go rack ‘em up, Mr. Phillips.” Pearl pushed through the others and made her way to the den. “Let’s play that Oddball game you tried to teach me.”
Cameron looked at Will. He shrugged and mumbled. “Don’t look at me. What I say doesn’t count for much around here.” He walked behind Joe into the room. “It’s 8-Ball, Pearl.”
“Oh, of course. Eight Balls. I’m always forgetting that.”
Joe looked back at Cameron, arms crossed, still at the top of the stairs. “You said you were pretty good, right? May as well give in. Come be my partner.”
“Should we make a little wager, then?” Pearl slid a cue stick off the wall.
Will rolled the rack across the table, rearranging the balls so the black 8-ball was in the top corner. “We don’t need a bet, Pearl. This is just a nice little game between friends.”
“But I always wanted to be able to bet on a game of pool. My daddy never let me play.”
“Pearl, you know—”
She tapped her cue stick lightly on Will’s shoulder. “Just you never mind. Our friends would love to play for stakes.”
Cameron turned to Joe and whispered. “How good are you?”
“Been a while.” He laced his fingers and cracked his knuckles. “But I used to do alright. Men’s League Champ three years running at Gin’s Pub in Chicago.”
“We can take them. She sounds like she’s barely played.”
“Twenty dollars then?” Joe asked.
“Well, ” Pearl looked back at Will and smiled. “That’s seems a little steep. And I’m short on cash. But I do have a gift card from Back Ribs Brewery. Would that work?”
“I do have a certain weakness where barbecue ribs are concerned.” Joe rubbed his hands together. “Combine that with a clean game of Solids and Stripes, and I can’t resist.
Pearl pressed a small chalk square against the tip of her cue stick. “Are we playing Alabama style or Misery?”
All three stared at her. “I thought you didn’t play, ” Cameron said, with a hand on her hip.
“Oh, well, ” Pearl waved them off. “They play those pool tournaments on the cable TV all the time. What else is a lonely old lady supposed to do in her big old empty house at night but watch?”
Will passed behind Cameron and whispered, “You’d better hope Joe’s still got it, or you’ve been had.”
She turned back. “I should hope Joe’s still got it? You do realize how ridiculous that sounds when you’re counting on a woman to win this for you, right?” She rested the bottom of her stick on top of Will’s foot and pressed down. “Maybe Joe and I both still have it.”
He winced and wiggled his foot free. “Of course, that’s what I meant. It’ll take both of you to outplay Pearl.”
Stepping away from Cameron, Will rapped his knuckles on the edge of the table. “Alright then. Who gets the break shot?”
“Let’s let Susan B. Anthony decide.” Joe pulled his hand out of his pocket and poked a finger through the coins in his palm, pulling out a gold dollar. He returned the rest to his pocket and flipped the dollar into the air with his other hand. “You call it, Pearl.”
“Heads, ” Pearl said. “No, wait. Tails.”
Joe caught the coin and slapped it to his forearm. “You’re sure now?”
“Yes. No. Oh, dear.” Pearl put a hand to her mouth. “Mr. Phillips?”
“What do you want to do, flip a coin to see what you should call in the coin toss?” Will chuckled. “Call heads, Pearl. Go with your first instinct.”
“Heads. Okay.” She smoothed the front of her skirt. “Yes. No. Tails, Mr. Murphy.”
Joe barely lifted his hand off the coin and peeked in. “Well, you kids aren’t going to believe this.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense, Mr. Murphy. I’m so excited to be able to play I can barely stand it.”
Joe covered the coin and called Cameron over. “Take a looky here.”
Cameron pumped a fist in the air.
Pearl’s eyes dropped and she turned to Will. “Looks like we don’t get to break.”
“Tails!” Joe bellowed, and he and Cameron laughed out loud.
“Oh, my stars!” Pearl punched Joe in the arm. “I thought you’d say heads for sure.”
“Nope. It’s all yours.”
“Well, what are you waiting for, Mr. Phillips?”
Will straightened. “Oh, sorry. I thought after all that you’d want to break.”
“Oh, no. I’m too nervous. And I don’t know the first thing about how to break. You do it.”
“Umm, okay.” He picked up the white cue ball and tossed it in the air, catching it backhanded as he walked to the kitchen end of the table. Will set the ball down and crouched to look at the line. He picked the ball up and moved it to the other side, repeating the crouched view. Standing back up, he pointed the cue stick in a line from the cue ball to the blue striped 12-ball at the side of the pyramid. Then he put the cue stick behind his neck, arms draped over the ends, and did a couple of deep squats and twisted his torso from side to side.
Cameron crossed her arms. “Really?”
“I need to get in the zone, you know? There’s a rack of ribs on the line here. Not to mention my dignity.”
“Your dignity. Over a game of pool.”
“Some of us get it wherever we can find it.”
“Mr. Phillips, stop fooling around now, ” Pearl pressed. “Our lunch will spoil waiting for your zone to find you. Break already.”
“Alright, alright.” Will shot, sending the balls clacking against each other and scattering across the table. The red 3-ball crept to a stop near the far side pocket.
“Oh, rats. None of them dropped. I knew I should have been the one to break, ” Pearl lamented.
“Of course you should have. That’s why you insisted I do it.” Will leaned back against the wall, holding his stick in front of him like a door he could close on himself.
“Do you want first shot, Joe?” Cameron asked, looking sidelong at Will.
“You take it. I have a hunch you girls are going to have the advantage today.”
Cameron walked around the table, stopping here and there, leaning sideways to analyze her shot. She stopped in front of Will, lined up and shot the cue ball between the blue 2-ball and the purple striped 12-ball, skimming the side of the orange 5-ball and sending it slowly along the side, bumping the red 3-ball and sinking it.
“Okay then!” Joe clapped. “We will be solids.”
Cameron stayed along the table, eyeing her next shot. Half the balls were clustered together and none had a clear shot toward a pocket. She set up and banked a soft shot off the side wall to nestle the cue ball in the middle of the cluster.
“Your shot, Pearl.” She gave Will a smug smile and stepped back from the table.
“My word, Mr. Phillips.” Pearl picked up the chalk again and twisted it against the tip of her cue stick. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to do anything with that white ball surrounded by all those colored balls.”
Will leaned over the table and pointed. “Well, I think if you hit it just right, from this angle, you could knock things loose and—”
The clack of balls interrupted his thoughts as Pearl reached across from the other side, spraying the cluster of balls outward and driving the red striped 11-ball into the side pocket.
“Or, you know—”
Pearl came around the corner of the table and poked Will in the belly, leaving a perfect blue dot on his shirt. “Yes, I do know. I’m playing, Mr. Phillips. Try to pay attention.”
Will stepped back and sat down on an antique wooden chair in the corner, watching Pearl in silence as she cleared all but one of the striped balls off the table, the cue stick standing upright between his knees.
Pearl’s 9-ball rolled to a stop just shy of a corner pocket and she tapped the bottom of her cue stick against the floor in protest. “Darn it. So close, too.”
Joe laughed a big belly laugh. “You’re a hustler!” he said. “You should have told us she was this good, Will.” He unbuttoned his sleeves and folded them up to his elbows.
Will tugged on his own cuff, slipping it over his hand to the knuckles. “I figured you’d see for yourself soon enough.”
“Well, it’s a good thing it’s only a $20 bet, though I sure was looking forward to those ribs.”
Pearl beamed from the end of the table.
“I wouldn’t write off those ribs just yet, Joe, ” Cameron said. “We’re just getting started.”
“I don’t know if I can outshoot that performance.” He crouched and scanned the table. “Though it looks like you left me a gift at the side pocket.” Joe lined up a shot and dropped the 2-ball. He worked his way around the table, not missing a shot until all that was left was his 5-ball, Pearl’s 12-ball and the black 8-ball staring with its white eye at Will from across the table.
“Everything hinges on you now, Mr. Phillips, ” Pearl said. “No pressure though, of course. I can always get an other gift card.”
“Thanks for the confidence, Pearl.” Will stayed in his chair, studying the table.
“I think you could make a nice easy shot from over here.” Pearl held her stick out, drawing a line in the air from the cue ball to the purple striped 12-ball. “Bank it off the back side and she’ll go right in.”
Will stood without speaking, walked behind Pearl and lined up an unlikely shot from the other side of the table.
“No, Mr. Phillips. Didn’t you hear me?” Pearl said. “Over here.”
“I heard you.” Will did not look up.
He rested a hand on the felt, laying the cue stick across his knuckles and sliding it back and forth.
“That will never work.”
“You’re probably right.”
Time seemed suspended as the blue tip of his cue stick struck the white cue ball and for a split second Will saw Pearl’s tiny, perfectly round head rolling across the table toward the side, banking at just the right angle and knocking into the 12-ball, which rolled dutifully into the corner pocket.
He stood upright and felt the cue stick slide through his hand, the rubber tip bouncing against the floor.
Pearl threw both hands in the air and turned in a circle. “You did it! That was a ridiculous shot, but you made it.”
“Quite impressive, my friend, ” Joe said, his head shaking.
Cameron watched Will from across the room without saying anything.
“Anyway, you got lucky there. I see no reason for you to have taken such a shot when I showed you a guaranteed winner.”
“Every reason in the world, ” Will said softly, eyeing the 8-ball sitting safely behind Joe’s 5-ball.
“You’ll take the sure shot this time, of course, ” Pearl said. “Look over here now. I’ll be taking that rib dinner out of your rent if we lose.”
Will kept his eye on the 8-ball. “There are no sure shots Pearl. I know you know this.”
“And I know you understand the value of the surest-shot, Mr. Phillips. Come look.” She pointed with her stick.
Will walked slowly around, stopping where Pearl was tracing a line from the cue ball to the side wall to the 8-ball. “It would work, surely better than any idea you have.”
He looked up at the ceiling, watching the fan blades circle. As he lowered his eyes, he saw Cameron under the window opposite him. She looked at the floor. Will turned to Joe, who smiled and nodded slightly.
“Mr. Phillips? You’ll take the shot. It’s a good one.”
“It is a good one, Pearl. Maybe even damn close to sure.” He leaned down and looked across the table again.
Pearl let out a deep breath and stepped back to the wall out of the way, a hand to her mouth, and watched.
Will rested the cue stick on his hand and pulled back, then straightened again and went around the corner of the table.
“Mr. Phillips.” Pearl dropped her hand to her waist. “We agreed that was a good shot.”
“We did agree.”
He set up at the table again and without thinking pulled back his cue stick and let it smack into the cue ball, sending it sailing across the table in a nearly opposite path as Pearl had pointed, taking an extra bounce off the sidewall before finally knocking into Joe’s ball which rolled toward the 8-ball, tapping it into the side pocket.
“No way.” Cameron stood with her hands on her hips. “That shouldn’t have worked.”
“Probably not, ” Will said.
Joe was laughing. Will stiffened, bracing for Pearl.
“Shouldn’t have worked at all.” She slid her stick into the rack on the wall. “That’s quite enough of this. We should go get our lunch.”
“We’ve been hustled, ” Joe said to Cameron as he motioned her toward the door.
Cameron smiled. “Not the only ones, I think.”
Will came around the table, pausing behind Pearl to let her go through the door ahead of him.
“There was no reason for that” Her glare softened. “But I do have to admit it was a damn good shot.”
(to be continued)