2 | The Corner Pocket
“Coming through!” Bart shoved his way through the crowd blocking the classroom door and wedged himself into the hall. The other students looked lost, and Bart remembered that feeling. This year he wasn’t lost; he was lonely. Repeating eighth grade meant Bart had been left behind by the friends he’d had since fourth grade. He was starting over.
His closest friends and football buddies had gone on to high school, where they were doing well. Murdock and Fairley were even going to play on the varsity team. They were skipping junior varsity altogether.
Bart knew he could play on the varsity if he ever got to high school. His father had been a badass football player. Bart was determined to be better.
His new classmates made Bart sick, especially that suck-up Franklin Gibson. I went to scout camp and I hope to make some new friends this year. In his mind’s ear Bart mimicked Franklin in a high-pitched, sing-song voice.
What was it about that kid? Bart put his mind up against the question. He didn’t even know Franklin, though everyone knew about everyone else in a town as small as Laurinburg. In Bart’s mind, everything came easy for Franklin. He didn’t have a witch for a step-mother. His family had tons of money. Teachers loved him. Franklin was the opposite of Bart in every way. Bart was fit; Franklin was fat. Franklin had a regular family; Bart had a wreck of a family.
Bart stiffened his back, pulled himself up to his full height, and stood ramrod-straight like a Marine. He knew the ads: The few. The proud. The Marines. Sometimes life put you in a tough place and you had to man up. Kids like Franklin hadn’t learned that. Hadn’t had to learn it.
They would know something about tough places if they had to live with Doris Wagram. And Franklin Gibson was gonna find out about tough places if he came out for football.
Bart made his way down the hall and out into the mid-afternoon glare. The heat of the day hit him like he had run into a wall. He was glad practice didn’t begin today. The football field would be flat and hard and scorched. He remembered early practice from last year, with heat shimmering off the field.
The field belonged to the Laurinburg recreation department, and it was close to school. Bart could be there in fifteen minutes, ten if he hustled. He felt for the money in his jeans pocket, found it, and headed to the Corner Pocket.
The Corner Pocket was the only pool hall in town. It was a quarter-mile from school. Bart could see the crooked Budweiser sign the minute he got to the road. The sign was old and faded, like the place itself. It hung cock-eyed from a rusty pole that had once been painted silver. The parking lot was a rutted gravel and mud puddle affair, littered with empty cigarette packages and thousands of cigarette butts.
The pool hall served beer, so no one under twenty-one was supposed to go inside, but old Rufus didn’t care. Bart, Fairley, and Murdock hung out in there last year, and no one said a thing. By the end of the school year, they could shoot a fair game of eight-ball. Bart was the ace by far.
There weren’t many people who played pool in the middle of the afternoon. Bart figured he would know them all. He slipped around back so no one could see him and stepped into the cool, damp blackness.
It was so dark Bart was disoriented. He had forgotten how long it took for his eyes to adjust and had to wait for his pupils to dilate. He remembered a discussion in health class about rods and cones in the human eye, and he wondered which of those helped him see in this dump.
There wasn’t a window in the whole place. Except for lights above each pool table, and a few above the bar, there wasn’t any artificial light either. Bart could make out the faint shape of the pool tables and the blue glow of a television perched above the bar. Someone stood under the television.
“Hey Bart, what’s shaking?” Rufus spotted him.
“Rufus, is that you? I can’t see a damn thing in here. It’s bright outside.”
“Hot, too, ain’t it? Come on in. I’m over here at the bar.” Bart’s eyes began to adjust. “What you been up to this summer?”
“Not much. Working out for football, mostly. Making a little dough mowing grass. And trying to stay out of trouble with my step-mother. I’m on the way to football sign-ups and had a few minutes to kill. Want to play a quick game of eight-ball?”
“How come you ain’t playing at the high school? Murdock was in here the other day talking about you and what fun y’all had playing ball last year.”
Bart hated this. Who wants to be known as the guy who flunked two grades before he got to high school?
“I got a do-over on eighth grade.” Making a joke out of it sometimes worked. “They didn’t think I got it right the first time. Now what about that game of eight-ball?”
“Sure. Rack ‘em up and break. How’s the team going to be this year?”
“Don’t know. All of ‘em just moved up from the elementary school. Last year’s team is all at the high school now. All except me.”
“Tough break. How did you manage to flunk eighth grade? You’re plenty smart enough. I know that from your hanging around here. What’s the deal?”
“Lots of stuff going on at home, man. Now, are we gonna play pool or what?”
“I’m gonna whup you bad, is what I’m gonna do. Sorry it’s tough at home. You deserve better. Want something to drink?”
“Yeah. You got a cold Sun-Drop in the cooler?”
Bart racked the balls and broke them with a crisp shot. The balls spun wildly across the green felt, but none went in a pocket. He took the cold, wet bottle from Rufus and sucked down a long draw. The citrus sweet taste was a perfect antidote to the late-summer day.
“Man, that’s good,” Bart said. “How much do I owe you?”
“The game’s on me. The soft drink is a quarter.” Rufus took his shot and the ball rolled slowly into a pocket. His next shot yielded nothing. Bart’s turn also yielded nothing.
Bart caught Rufus’s eye and flipped him a quarter for the Sun-Drop. The quarter spun brightly though the air before Rufus reached out a big right hand and snatched it in mid-flight. He slapped it down on the top of his left hand and called out to Bart, “Call it. Double or nothing. You could be playing for free and drinking for free.”
Rufus uncovered the coin. “Heads it is. Lucky dog.” He flipped the quarter back to Bart and lined up his shot. The balls clicked together. One rolled into a pocket and Rufus moved for his second shot.
“Hey Rufus, you know a kid named Franklin Gibson?”
“Nope. What about him?”
“He’s in my class. I remember him from elementary school. Sort of a chunky, goody-two-shoes kind of kid.”
Rufus laughed. “Why do you think I’d know him? We don’t get many kids like that in this place.”
“Hell, Rufus, you know everybody. You’ve lived here almost forty years. Think, man. Do you know anyone named Gibson?”
Rufus stared into space. “Well, yeah, there was a kid in my class in elementary school named Gibson. Fact is, I think his first name was Frank. He didn’t go to high school here – went to some fancy-smancy prep school up in Virginia.”
“What happened to him?”
“How would I know? I ain’t his mama. I think his old man worked at the bank. Maybe that’s where he works, too. Why are you so interested in this guy?”
“Nothing. It’s something about this kid. You look at him, and you just want to knock the shit out of him. You ever felt like that?”
“Nah, man. I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Rufus lined up his second shot. He missed, then took a long look at Bart. “This Gibson kid do something to you?”
“No. Just sat there at his desk looking like some sort of candyass. You telling me you never wanted to kick a guy’s tail just for how he looks, just to see if you could?”
“Well, maybe once in a while when I was younger. But not in a long time. I was running out of teeth.” Rufus laughed and smiled an enormous gap-toothed grin. Bart never noticed how many teeth Rufus was missing. Almost all the front ones were gone, top and bottom.
“You really get all those knocked out fighting?” Bart was fascinated. Rufus had never talked about this.
“Yeah. You should have seen the other guy; he went to the hospital in a meat wagon. Now, you gonna play pool or you just gonna stand there and shoot the shit?”
Bart lined up his shot – he had to get the bridge to reach across the table – then tapped the cue ball gently. The target ball rolled slowly across the felt, paused at the pocket, then dropped in with a clunk.
“Lucky dog,” Rufus said.
“Lucky and good ain’t the same thing. Now watch this.”
The balls had split in a way that Bart thought he could run the table. He lined up his next shot, took it, and heard another soft clunk. Again. Clunk.
“Some gratitude,” Rufus said. “I give you a game and a soft drink, then you kick my ass. I’m glad there ain’t nobody else in here to see it.”
Bart ran the table, then glanced up at the yellowed clock above the bar. It was three-forty eight. He had twelve minutes to get to the team meeting, and he was going to have to hustle. “Thanks, man. I hate to run, but I got to get to sign-ups. You’ll get me next time!”
“Fat chance,” Rufus said. “You’re on the way to being a world-class hustler. Good luck with football. Sorry to hear about the school thing.”
“Thanks,” Bart said. Then, more softly, “Me too.”
“Oh – and Bart . . . ?”
“Take it easy on the candyass, will ya?” Rufus winked at Bart, who shot him the bird.
Bart set out for the practice field at a slow jog, picking up the pace as he got closer to the field. It hadn’t gotten any cooler, and sweat was pouring off of him by the time he reached the hill above the field. His stomach gurgled and he burped loudly. He wished he hadn’t drunk the Sun-Drop. It wasn’t good the second time around.
He trotted down the hill to the field and scanned the group – there was Coach McInnis with some short, thick grown-up Bart didn’t know. Maybe he was a coach, too. A bunch of kids milled around the coaches, talking nervously. Some of them looked like they might be able to play a little bit. He recognized Harvey and Danny from class with Mrs. McClellan. Bart remembered hearing about them when they played little league ball last year. Folks said that Harvey had an arm like a rocket; he could really air it out.
Bart wondered if the team was going to be any good. Maybe. Maybe not. Hard to tell at this point. Either way, he figured he was gonna have a heck of a good year. He had worked out all summer so he could jack some jaws big time.
“All right, men, listen up.” It was Coach McInnis, and the group immediately stopped talking. “Head over to the bleachers so we can see and hear each other. I want to make some announcements and pass around a sign-up sheet. We’ll use the first three rows over there, about ten guys to a row. Hustle up now, we’ve got a lot to cover.”
Bart turned toward the bleachers and there was Franklin Gibson, sitting right in the middle of the bleachers like a teacher’s pet. “Man,” Bart thought, “there’s something about that mama’s boy I don’t like at all.”
Bart jogged toward the bleachers and took a seat on the fourth row up, right in the middle, overlooking the team and above the coach. He wanted to eyeball everyone.