The Man In The ‘Huskers Sweatshirt
The man in the ‘Huskers sweatshirt wheezed painfully and felt something grind slowly inside of him. At least one rib was broken. He’d be lucky if that was as far as it went. Apparently you don’t say bad things about Mississippi when you’re there.
Walking in the door had been the second-hardest part of the night. He’d already been drinking, first at the hotel and later in the car. The headlights were like tiny stars as his eyes closed, and he realized he better find a place to pull over. The next building had a decently full parking lot he figured he could sleep it off in. God, in his graciousness, made it a bar.
Beer and a bump is what you tell a bartender when you intend to spend the evening comfortably drunk. “Line ‘em up,” you’d say, if you were feeling invincible or were determined to forget a series of important facts. The bartender brings a beer, or several, and a shot of whiskey, or several. You can drink the whiskey and chase it with beer, or drop one into the other and down them both, since they’re ending up together anyway. Some bars have limits on how many drinks a patron is allowed to have at any given moment. Some bars don’t.
The pool table had been threadbare. The felt that refused to cover the surface evenly caused balls to pitch and turn. It would take a man night after night of playing the table to get accommodated to the bumps, and even then he’d hate them. It took the man in the ‘Huskers sweatshirt slightly less than one game to understand what secret barriers existed where, and what routes he could count on to turn a ball several degrees in its spin. He had always been observant, and could notice small changes in things almost instantly. Often, these things he noticed would be later confirmed, and he would feel a small sense of pride in his level of awareness.
His first game went excellent for the other players, and even better for him. He sank two balls: one each of stripes and solids. He stammered, confused as to which side he was playing. At one point he set his beer on the edge of the table and knocked it onto his shoes. Later, while lining up a miss, he accidentally jabbed the back end of his cue into a red-haired woman seated behind him. He apologized profusely and offered to buy her a new drink. She politely declined, and the man she sat with took her to another table.
By the third game, he was hitting his stride, losing comfortably to the men, but with enough of a show that it seemed as if he would be half decent were he sober. It was at this point, someone suggested, with no suggestion from the man in the ‘Huskers sweatshirt, they play for money. The man agreed, and put down ten dollars. He was told buy-in was twenty, so it would cover the next round. He agreed this was fair, and sauntered to the ATM. The two dollar service charge annoyed him, but he removed twenty dollars and placed it on the pile.
This motion was repeated several times over the next few games. Soon, he was taking out forty dollars at a time. In his head, he noted he had accrued almost twenty bucks in fees so far. He voiced this concern and insisted they raise the stakes so he wasn’t being gypped by the machine every time they re-racked. The other men agreed, as he had lost more than he had won so far. Any games he had won they attributed to bad luck, because his playing certainly wasn’t improving. As the beer continued to flow, the man offered to take the glasses to the bar, certain to leave his own behind.
The machine had blipped an angry noise and flashed the words “Insufficient Funds” at him. He smiled on the inside. Spend money to make money, Katie had said to him when they were thinking of buying a bar of their own. He’d applied the lesson his own way, afterwards, but made sure not to lose his seed. He grabbed the print-out receipt and shambled back to the table. He set it down and was met with a chorus of boos and exaggerated sadness over him leaving the game. He paused in deliberation and reached into his pocket.
The ring was too small to slip onto even his pinky. It was bright platinum and the stone set in it was genuine, though he had no way to prove it as such. He merely asked to be taken on faith, and anything his opponents were willing to match. He’d been left before even giving it to the woman, he explained, and the jewelry store was more than willing to offer him a refund for a sixth of the price they’d charged.
Money was thrown down and the ring was placed on top of the pile. It was almost six minutes later, after a snide comment on the pool-playing abilities of Jackson natives, when a pool cue cracked him in the head. The blows came hard, and being ready for them didn’t cause them to lessen in pain or frequency. Two other players came to his side when he fell and began to kick him. Words were thrown about. Many were four-letters long, though “shark” was five. He was dragged to the door and thrown out onto the porch. A moment later the door reopened and the ring was hurled into the parking lot. This time the four letter word was “fake”.
The man in the ‘Huskers sweatshirt began to laugh, but quickly stopped when he felt the pieces of bone slide over each other. The ring was the only real thing about tonight, he thought. The story was real enough, he just cut himself off early. Didn’t mention the part about noticing the small differences. The secretive phone calls, the sudden appointments, the barely noticeable bump in her belly. She’d been driving to meet him at Lamour’s. She had something to tell him, and the coroner spilled her secret after they found the wreck. The ring was real. He was going to get married and be a daddy.
He coughed and began to crawl towards the parking lot. First the ring, then his car. He’d sleep it off, find a hospital in the morning.