Games Best Played Alone

by Wendy C. Williford

 

Faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, yet you can’t even sink the three ball in the center pocket.

Countless nights you’ve been coming here and it’s always the same. The faces are different but in essence they never really change—just a floating mass of bodies that have crowded in, all seeking some strange comfort they’ve been unable to find in their family and work lives. It doesn’t make a great bit of sense, yet, it gives comfort that for a few hours a night you can identify with them, pretend to share a semblance of their problems, fears, hopes, and aspirations. It gives you a chance to be like them before you’re dreadfully reminded that there is nothing in you akin to them, not the same mind, not the same bodies, not even the same DNA. You were raised around them, went through puberty and adolescence with them, entered into manhood along with them, but it doesn’t change the fact that you weren’t born with them, didn’t breathe the first breath of oxygen with them, didn’t suckle your mother’s breast along with them. You are not any of them and it torments you inside.

The glowing neon of the Miller Lite sign looms above the rusty chair in which you’ve taken a seat. Staring at the pool table, you contemplate the next shot. Tonight, you’re stripes and solids, not because you couldn’t find anyone to play with, but because you prefer it that way. It’s just among the many games you play alone, having realized at a young age that you can best anyone at anything without even breaking a sweat in your little finger. These people don’t even offer a challenge anymore. The rednecks take one look at you and assume you haven’t got the sense that their god gave to a mule. The college frat boys think you’re nothing but a middle-aged man, unable to socialize with others, although in truth you’re only a little more than ten years their senior. At least by Earth’s years. And the young girls think you’re something to be pitied as they lean over the tables around the pool-hall, giving you a glimpse down their unbuttoned shirts, the dim lights above silhouetting the curve of their breasts. As they catch the hypnotic trance they’ve placed on you, they pop back up, giggling, gently stroking their clenched fist up and down the cue stick, thinking they’re giving you a fantasy to take back to your singles apartment before they turn around and place a deep kiss on the guy they’ve come with. If only they knew you could look through their clothing anytime you wanted, able to see the color of their thong underwear, birthmarks on their upper thighs, or if they have pierced nipples. But that’s your secret. Even though it would make for one hell of a pickup line, you keep it to yourself. In the end, none of them can fill the void She left.

Taking out a cigarette, you dig through your pocket for a lighter. It’s not as if they’re going to kill you. That very fact makes the thrill a little less enjoyable, but it makes you blend in, so you suck in all the nicotine you can handle, letting it settle deep in your lungs before blowing up to the ceiling, watch the smoke waft through the air of the pool hall and mix with the smoke of the others. The country band on the stage is playing a slow dance; the lead singer in his tight Wranglers and black Stetson thinks he’s country’s answer to Jim Morrison as he eyes a table of young women in the crowd, their bodies swaying to his trite lyrics. It’s a nuisance that you can read their thoughts, but that’s not due to any particular power, you’re just more in tune with human nature. Eyes are the giveaway, next the small pulsing in their necks or wrists. You could be a human lie detector from across the room and that thought makes you laugh.

Human. If they only knew.

You concentrate on the pool table once again. If you strike the cue ball with moderate force at a seventy-three degree angle from the left, it will knock against the purple solid four, send it into the left wall, one inch from the center pocket, ricochet toward the blue solid two, hit its left side, force the purple striped twelve to travel to the red solid three, which will go directly into the right center pocket, meanwhile, the twelve striped will continue on its path, strike the eight ball, send it toward the front right corner pocket, stop five inches away, where you want it to stay until the end of the game. You take a deep sigh. This game is becoming so predictable.

As you crush out your cigarette, Valerie approaches. You hear the sway of her hips before she even enters your eyesight.

“Hon, you want another Budweiser?” her raspy voice rises over the music. She likes you because you tip well. She picks up the five empty longnecks, along with their peeled labels, and places them on her corkboard tray. You nod as you finally glance her way. Your eyes settle on her bar logo t-shirt. She has a pearl-studded bellybutton ring. It’s infected but she’s not aware of it yet. You reach for your wallet, pull out a $20 and hand it to her.

“I gotta say, sweetheart, you are too good to me. You keep this up and I might just have to take you home with me one night.” She smiles and tosses her curly blonde hair over her shoulder. Unconsciously, she picks a piece of lint away from the cuff of your white long-sleeve shirt, oblivious to what the shirt is hiding.

“It’s all good in theory,” your deep voice caresses her ears, “but we both know you’d worry that I might not leave in the morning.”

She laughs, knowing it’s only a joke but truth lies within it. She places the $20 in her tab book and mindlessly scratches her stomach. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Valerie turns and heads back to the bar. She puts more effort in the sway of her hips this time. You like to watch women play their games with you, teasing you with the way they lick their lips or hold their posture just right to give you the fullest advantage point of their chests. Valerie is no different than the others but it doesn’t bother you. You let her think she’s in control of you, that she’ll keep you at a distance as long as it suits her, but little does she know that with one hot breath in her direction, you’ll have her wet before she knows what hit her. It’s all you’ll give her, though. It’s all you’ll give any of them. And it’s all Her fault. You shake your head, try to make the thought go away and get up.

You chalk your hands, then chalk the end of the cue stick. The blue dust settles over the hairs on the back of your hand. Blowing the dust away, you lean over the table and push your glasses back up the bridge of your nose. As you slide the cue stick against the back of your knuckles, you take the shot. The balls scatter around the green felt, none of them going in the direction you had intended. “Fuck!” you mutter to yourself. The angle must have been wrong. The thought that you might be losing your touch doesn’t even enter your mind.

Valerie returns with the beer. She keeps a $5 for herself, the rest she brings back as quarters. After she sets them on the table, she empties the ashtray into a bowl of half-eaten, stale tortilla chips she removed from a different table.

“The kitchen’s closing in twenty. Do you want anything to eat tonight?”

You shake your head, thinking about the next shot. Maybe a sixty-four degree angle will work this time. Valerie waits for attention, but when you fail to give it, she shakes her head—the pity shake—and walks away, lightly scratching her stomach with her pinkie.

It wasn’t always this way. The top of your class, a promising career as a reporter, and a decent salary were just the highlights of your accomplishments, at least the accomplishments that made you similar to them. It was the normality you always craved, it was the only thing that you yearned for and desired. Until you met Her. It wasn’t in a seedy bar or out on the streets. It was in the copy room. She smiled bashfully, hoping you hadn’t heard her kicking the machine from the hallway, asked if you were the repairman, unaware you were a new hire. Her jet black hair fell against her shoulders, a lock brushing against her collarbone. Two buttons were undone on her white blouse, revealing nothing but her slender neck and that collarbone. It was the first time you realized how that particular part of a woman was the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. You could have easily seen what was hidden beneath her blouse, under the black skirt that hung just below the knees, even the shape of her toes in the black pumps. But you didn’t. You wanted to keep it a mystery. There was a purity about her you didn’t want to violate. She took your breath away and you wanted to earn the chance of having her do it again and again. And again.

She played hard to get with the same expertise as the others. For months you watched her, taking every moment you could to memorize her face, the curve of her hips, the way she held a file against her chest with her other hand cocked on her waist as she intently listened to Murray, the editor-in-chief, raise his voice to her about deadlines, gutter widths, the expense of color photos and circulation decline, all the while, smiling, nodding when he accentuated a point and knowing full well she wasn’t taking a single word he said seriously. In the middle of the tirade, she glanced at you from the corner of her eye, gave a quick smile, letting you in on her amusement, and gave a final nod with a “Yes, sir! I’m on it.” She walked away, her womanly scent overpowering you as she passed your desk, her finger trailing against the lacquered simulation oak, her body heat leaving behind an imprint on the wood that only you could see. You loved her. It scared you to death.

But that’s the past. What did you have, a few good dates? A few nice dinners, a few good movies all ending the same, heavily kissing in the hallway outside her apartment door. The heat of her body is still emblazoned in your mind, along with the throaty moans she gave you as you pressed your body against hers, her hands entwined around your neck, then pulled away as you freed her shirttail and slid your hand up her back. With swollen lips, she gave the same excuse each time. It was always an early deadline and you bought it despite the fact you knew the truth. She just wouldn’t let you get close, no matter how many times you tried to prove to her that you weren’t like the ones before. In the end, you finally concluded, it wasn’t that she didn’t trust you, she didn’t trust herself. And it was the irony that hit you like a ton of bricks when you finally realized. It wasn’t the fact that she didn’t like you, she was just holding out, waiting for the man who secretly held her heart.

Him.

The other You.

You don’t regret saving her life. Any decent man would have done the same. It was the second time you did so which sealed your fate and left her utterly devoted to you. You mean him. You are two different people, you remind yourself. One, the man of steel, the idol of half the world, a dark fantasy of millions of women, any of whom you can take your pick; the other, a fumbling reporter who trips over your own shoelaces, gets sweaty palms and stutters when you ask a woman out. But you never wanted any of those women, just her. It was always her.

It’s your own damn fault, however. You’ve stopped speeding cars, out of control trains, but you couldn’t stop her. What was it that held you back, stopped you from taking off your glasses when that dark cloud loomed over you as she showed you the transfer letter? Why couldn’t you look her in the eyes, reveal to her it was you who had held her in your arms as you both floated down to the sidewalk after she nearly fell from that balcony. What blinded her to the fact that it was your shoulders she caressed when you pulled her out of the burning car, your lock of hair on the back of your head that she twirled around her finger, your neck her breath shuddered against when you told her she was safe. Why did you fool yourself into thinking she’d figure it out? Why couldn’t you have found the nerve to tell her? Even as she hailed the taxi for the airport, she turned to look at you one last time, your breath caught in your throat, you finally managed to say, “I am…” But the impatient honk of the driver pulled you out of the lock of her stare and you left her with “sad to see you go.”

That was eight months ago, and you wonder how your non-human heart can still ache so much. Perhaps it’s the reason you come to these honky-tonks night after night, searching for the answer, surrounding yourself with kindred spirits who are feeling the same pain, listening to the twangy whine of the singers who deliver ballads to the women who left them broken shells of their former selves. You understand why the suicide rate among country music fans is so high.

A moth circles the faux stained glass lightshade hanging above the pool table. The sound of its little body knocking against the plastic brings you back to the present. You look at your watch, decide it’s not too late for a few more quiet games. The thirst for more beer overcomes you and you go back to the table, finish the bottle, and reach for another cigarette. The orange flame dances inside your cupped hand, and as the haze from the first drag fades away, you notice a man has walked up to the table and is making himself busy pushing the cue ball back and forth along the felt. His eyes can’t hide his disappointment. He takes a moment to inspect the cue ball, paying careful attention to the little blue flecks covering the small sphere.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he says. He puts the cue ball back down and looks up, awaiting your acknowledgement.

You smirk at him. It’s just like him to try to get involved, his never-ending quest to be the savior to the saviors. “Mr. Wayne,” you say, almost snidely, the beer has renewed your strength. “What brings you out slum hopping?”

“Don’t call me Mr. Wayne, I’m…”

“I know,” you interrupt. It’s not a matter of reading his mind this time. “You’re just Bruce. I get it.”

Bruce lets out a deep sigh. He rolls his tongue against his lips, finding the right words to say to you. There are few people in the world who understand you and he is one of them.

“It’s been a while since we’ve talked. Are you holding up okay?” He takes off his leather gloves and shoves them in the pocket of his long black coat. You try to ignore him, move to his side of the pool table and place the cue ball back exactly as it was before he got there. He should know how much it annoys you when things are moved around. With the cue stick, you bend down, close one eye and work out a new strategy.

“I’d like you to come by my office next week,” he says. His head slowly revolves around, looking at the walls of the pool hall, spending a few moments looking at the girls at the other tables, then the cigarettes and beer bottles at your table.

“Don’t tell me you need my help with some big business venture,” you scoff. His mere presence in the last five minutes has managed to annoy you. You know why he’s here. He knows the wreck you’ve been since she left and he feels it’s his duty to talk you off whatever ledge he thinks you’re walking.

“Of course,” he says with a nod, attempting to placate you. “It’s business.”

Straightening up, you eye the pool table again, wonder if he plans on being here a while. Valerie comes by, sets another beer on the table. “Can I get your friend anything, hon?”

He shakes his head, as if it’s beneath him to drink with you. He’s so self-righteous, so predictable. Out of all of the lousy places in this city, he crashes one of the few safe havens you have left.

“He won’t be staying long.” You pull another bill out your wallet, not even bothering to notice the denomination. Whatever it is, Valerie will keep what she thinks is fair and bring you back the rest. You wait for her to leave before turning back to Bruce and give him a look that tells him he’s worn out his welcome. He’s slow to get the hint, especially when you gather some quarters and bend down to insert them in the slot. The current game is a bust. You push in the lever, sending the balls back through the long tunnel to the final chamber, racking and rolling against each other, the noise drowning out the sound of his disappointed sigh.

Bruce reaches into his pocket and pulls out his gloves, takes his time placing them on each hand. “I’ll see you next week?’

“I said I would,” you say. You take the balls out of the cabinet and haphazardly toss them on the table.

“Monday, if possible.”

He notices the shake of your head as you place the balls in the triangle. This part is important. Red Solid Three, Green Striped Fourteen and Yellow Striped Nine, Blue Solid Two…

“Are you listening to me, Jerry?”

The heat spreads to your face and you try to remain calm. How dare he? He knows full and well what you’re capable of and he breaks the so called bonds of friendship by doling out an insult such as this? The nails dig into your palms. You know you’re a better man than this. What would people think if you start a fight in the middle of a bar? What would she think if she heard about it?

“What did you call me?” You inhale deeply, wondering if you might have just misunderstood him through the din that permeates the room.

Bruce clears his throat. “I said, Clark, are you listening to me?”

You laugh. It’s strange what tricks the mind can play, especially mixed with a little stress.

“Yeah,” you reply, giving him a friendly smile. No harm, no foul. “Sure, Monday. First thing.”

He’s finally pleased. Friendships are about give and take, aren’t they? If it’s that important to Bruce that you make a visit to his office, then why not? You’re both in the same game, after all—your own secret club, both fighting for truth and justice for all. You take a moment to clear your head. How can you stay mad at him for long? He’s only looking out for you, has been for years.

Bruce clears his throat and moves out of the way as you go around the pool table. You’re lost again in the game. The first shot is a make or break deal. Nothing else matters except for this very first shot.

“We need to take a look at your meds. Just tweak them a bit.”

You nod, wonder why of all things he has to bring up those stupid sugar pills he’s been giving you for the past eight months. He told you they’d help relax you, help you sleep, help take your mind off of her leaving. You relented, just to make him happy. You knew the game he was playing. It was all psychological. The pills didn’t do anything for you at all, just made you think they were working. In the end, you cured yourself—without pills and with very little interference from him. Yet, you can see it in his eyes, he still wants to help you.

“Sure,” you reply, playing along. “They give me gas, anyway.”

Bruce actually laughs. He ties his scarf around his neck. “Do me a favor?”

You nod, sure, anything.

“You have to lay off of the beer. If your insurance discovers it, they might deny your coverage.”

You look back to the table in the corner. One empty, one waiting. “I’ve only had the two.”

Bruce nods. You wonder if that’s disbelief you see on his face.

“At any rate.” He turns and leaves.

You watch as he walks out the door and give it a few minutes just in case he decides to come back in. You finish the beer Valerie left. You’re feeling calm, content, and lucid. You check your watch. Almost midnight. You’ve been out too long. Rather than hanging around for last call, you decide to leave. If you stay any longer, Valerie will offer to call a cab and you won’t have enough left to pay the fare. There’s also a chance she might take you up on your flirtatious suggestion from earlier. She’s a nice girl, but simply not your type.

The new game you set up remains unplayed. Perhaps it’s for the best. You grab your coat, slip it on and start buttoning up. A familiar itch plagues you. You reach up and rub your neck, feeling the hem of the blue lycra suit you wear underneath. There hasn’t been any use for it for days, months even. But still, you never leave home without it, just in case.

You leave the bar, bidding Valerie goodnight as you walk out the door. It’s only a few blocks to your apartment and the weather outside is not as bitter as it usually is this time of year. The walk is invigorating and beats a cold shower.

The night is quiet and peaceful. Only the drone of the streetlights hums in your ears. As you pass the side alley of the second block, another sound begins to resonate in your ears. You want to ignore it, but it grows louder with each step along the pavement. It’s all too familiar, too filled with desperation. Why are you the only one who hears it? Why are you the only one who cares enough to respond?

Looking down the dark alley, you are given evidence as to why you sometimes hate the people you share this planet with. Two young men are beating up on another younger man. He’s on the ground, his arms in the air, protecting himself against their blows. His face is bloody, his nose is already broken, two teeth missing, crying for them to stop. The bigger of the assailants is yelling. He’s high, possibly on crack; you can smell it all the way from where you stand. The smaller of the assailants has ceased his assault and is now rummaging through the young man’s coat, looking for money, perhaps looking for another fix.

You know what you should do, what your responsibility is. The overwhelming need to step in, fight the injustice and protect the week burns through your core. It’s a burden none feel as keenly as you. With one effortless movement, you can shed your disguise, prove to yourself once again you’re needed, you’re depended upon, and reclaim the feeling that faded when she left. There has to be something in this world that will make you feel alive again.

It’s instinctive to go down there, but you don’t. Tonight, selfishness takes over—a trait you’ve managed to avoid all of your life. Turning away, blocking out the sounds of the world, you resign yourself to a simple resolve: you can’t save them all.

You wonder if you can even save yourself.