Poets

For Nikki Wright

After a brief silence, the all-too-familiar guitar riff drifted through the sparsely filled hall. Daniel smiled as he heard Monique groan, feigning pleasure at her discomfort. The truth was he was just as sick of hearing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” as she was. But it was more fun not to let this on.

“I swear that if people don’t stop choosing this song,” Monique promised through closed teeth, “I’m going to run that dumb box through with my cuestick.”

“Would you rather they play Willie Nelson?” Daniel asked, smiling. “I like the Clash.”

“I like the Clash too,” said Monique, “but I don’t want to hear them every five minutes. There are other good songs in the world.”

“In the world, yes. On this jukebox, no.”

The South End Billiard Hall was infamous for having one of the worst jukeboxes in all of Hillsboro. A mixture of old country and adult contemporary, it was terribly out of date and entirely wrong for the crowd that the South End drew. Consisting of a disjointed mix of high school slackers and twentysomethings that were too poor or lazy to make the drive to Cincinnati, it wasn’t the sort of group that went for Top 40. The Clash’s Combat Rock, along with Social Distortion’s self-titled album, comprised the hall’s entire punk library. As a result, it was impossible to spend an hour at the South End without hearing “Rock the Casbah” and “Ball and Chain” played enough to ensure that you never wanted to hear the songs again.

Daniel and Monique had spent enough time at the South End over the past year to have memorized every single song on both albums, along with several songs off of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, which also occasionally made their way into the mix. Friends since high school, the two had gone their separate routes after graduation, with Daniel moving to Indiana to attend Ball State University and Monique working her way through the retail ranks back home in Hillsboro. The pair managed to stay in touch over the five years that Daniel was in college, a feat often made difficult by a series of boyfriends and girlfriends that were collectively referred to as the “Mistakes.” Now with Daniel once again living in Hillsboro, the two got together at least once a week, and could almost always be found splitting pitchers of Coors Light and complaining about the music at the South End every Friday night.

“Now if they only had some Aerosmith in the box,” Monique suggested, “that would make this place a bit more bearable. I could tolerate hearing ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ a dozen times in a row.”

“You know, we can always go someplace else,” Daniel offered. “There are other things to do. Even in a sinkhole like Hillsboro.”

“I’m aware of that. But kicking your butt repeatedly at pool is the perfect start to my weekend. I can’t think of a better way to spend my Friday night.”

Pool was never Daniel’s favorite pastime, which had a lot to do with the fact that he just wasn’t very good at it. Over the past year his game had improved, but it was still pretty sloppy, with most of his successful shots being driven by nothing more than pure luck. That Monique also insisted on getting Daniel drunk every Friday night didn’t help matters much. Just as Daniel seemed to be getting the upper hand, Monique would order another pitcher, causing Daniel to wonder if perhaps Monique wasn’t as good at playing pool as she was at playing him. With any other girl, he might have been offended.

Daniel had actually managed to steal one from her this evening, beating Monique in the first game after she inexplicably missed a bank shot, lining the cue up with the eight ball for an easy corner shot which even Daniel had no trouble making. Monique didn’t repeat the mistake in the following game, quickly sinking all her balls before Daniel had managed to pocket even one of his. They were now tied at one game apiece, and as Daniel racked the balls, Monique attempted to get the waitress’s attention so she could order another pitcher, their third.

“I don’t know, Mon. I’m not certain I can help you finish another one tonight.” Daniel’s voice was uneasy as he spoke. Monique’s tolerance for alcohol was much higher than his, and he had learned back in high school that trying to keep up with her when it came to drinking was never a good idea. Monique usually respected Daniel’s attempts at moderation, but tonight she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Umm…about 10:30,” Daniel said, looking at his watch.

“It’s still early,” Monique quickly responded. “We’re not leaving anytime soon, are we?”

Daniel sighed and shook his head. He knew that he was probably going to regret this, but wasn’t capable of producing much of an argument right now. He’d be fine provided he nursed his next beer. Besides, Monique was right, it was pretty early. He hadn’t planned on getting home before one.

Monique ordered the pitcher and looked down at the table, then back up at Daniel, giving him a look of mock frustration.

“You realize that you’re hopeless, don’t you?” she said with a grin.

“You know, since you seem to be so picky about where each ball goes in the rack, maybe you should quit asking me to rack them and just do it yourself,” Daniel responded.

“I would, but despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I still hold out hope that you can be educated.”

“This from the girl who failed the only college course she took.”

“You say that as if college and education had anything to do with each other,” Monique said, grinning widely.

“Even if they don’t, how on earth could you fail that class?” Daniel replied, smiling back at her.

“Same way you fail any class.”

“It was drama.”

“Yes.”

“Drama!”

“I know what class it was, Daniel.”

“You memorize lines, then say them in front of an audience. Most people could do that in their sleep.”

“What can I say? I found it boring.”

“College is boring, Monique. That’s why employers are so impressed by degrees. They know a college graduate is capable of withstanding tedium.”

“So, that’s what the whole university thing is about? Withstanding tedium?”

“That’s a big part of it, yes. At least, that’s my theory. And none of my professors did anything to disprove it.”

“Hell, I don’t need to go to college for that. I can just give Carla a call. That will impress employers far more than a college degree.”

Carla was Daniel’s most recent addition to the Mistakes. A particularly controlling woman, he had ended his relationship with her a few months after graduation. Monique never liked Carla. Daniel was well aware of this, and knew that Monique was baiting him, but he was willing to play along.

“How so?” he asked.

“Simple. It will prove that I can withstand tedium just as easily as any college graduate, and it won’t set me back the ten or fifteen grand that a university degree would, which shows I have an eye for the bottom line.”

“Remind me why I hang out with you so often,” Daniel prompted.

“Because I keep you sharp and I keep your ego in check. And because I’m the only person willing to overlook the fact that you’re currently stalling on a table that we’re paying for by the hour. Now will you hurry up and break?”

“It’s my break?”

“You know it is! You lost the last game, which means that you get the first shot in the next one,” Monique laughed in response, then quickly adopted a more serious tone. “Now, let’s see if you remember what I told you. Place the cue in a spot that’s comfortable for you. And make sure it’s close enough to the end of the table for you to get some muscle behind the shot.”

“I’m not sure I can do that. How about you come over here and help me?”

“Just shut up and shoot the goddamn ball,” Monique said, rolling her eyes.

“Okay, though you might want to duck.”

Daniel lined up the break to the best of his abilities, then made the shot. With the unmistakable clack that Daniel had become so familiar with over the past year, the balls scattered across the table, reaching out to the six pockets, but not falling into them.

“Nice break,” Monique said, picking up her cue.

“Yeah, but I didn’t sink any of them,” Daniel quickly replied, the dejection he was feeling evident in his voice.

“That’s okay. First work on spreading them out, then you can worry about sinking one. That was good.”

Monique lined up a simple shot at one of the side pockets, easily dropping the four ball. She followed this with another simple shot, this time sinking the two in one of the back corners, before missing a table length shot, bringing the play back to Daniel. As he chalked up his cue the waitress brought the pitcher Monique had ordered. She paid the girl, a middle-aged blonde who looked as if she had spent a few too many nights in smoky rooms, then poured out two fresh glasses as Daniel surveyed the table.

“You’re solids, right?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“As usual, you left me no shot.”

“Of course not.”

Daniel missed his attempt to pocket the thirteen, and took several deep sips of Coors Light as Monique also missed her shot. Returning to the table, he finally sank one of his balls, dropping the twelve into the front corner with a strong shot that seemed to impress Monique.

“Hey, that’s not bad! There’s hope for you yet, young Skywalker,” she joked.

“Yeah, it’s called luck combined with intoxication. If that’s what the Force is, then I’m a strong enough Jedi to lift this pool table out of Yoda’s swamp.”

“Come on, you’re not that bad.”

“I will be when I finish this.”

Daniel grinned as he held up his glass, then took a deep pull. So much for nursing it, he thought.

Returning to the table, he missed his next shot, but managed to park the cue directly adjacent to the eight ball, making Monique’s follow up shot difficult.

“Nice trick. Where’d you pick that one up?” she asked as she surveyed the table. Monique’s face was serious, and Daniel knew that a variety of shots were being lined up and played out in her head. He watched her, intrigued, as she tightened her lips the way that she always did while thinking. She had a pretty face, with perfect skin and shimmering eyes. Her hair, which until recently had been red, was now black, giving Monique a look that was not unlike a young Bettie Page.

Daniel smiled as he caught himself staring. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, he had found himself looking at Monique much more frequently since returning back home, but she had never seemed to notice. Daniel wasn’t sure if he was relieved or frustrated by this, only knowing that he seemed to favor the latter the more that he drank. Picking up his glass, Daniel slowly sipped his beer as Monique finally made a shot, just missing the ball she was aiming at.

Chalking up his cue, Daniel played out a bank shot in his head. Lining it up as best he could, he made the unsuccessful shot before saying, “I read those poems you emailed me.”

Monique set her cue against the wall and finished off her beer before refilling her glass and topping off Daniel’s.

“You did?” she asked.

“Yeah, and I think they’re your best yet,” Daniel responded.

“Stop it,” Monique said.

“No, I’m serious. In fact, they’re so good that I really think you should consider submitting them for publication. I think you’d be crazy not to.”

Monique and Daniel were both writers, however, the similarities between the two stopped with the label. Daniel had studied literature and creative writing in college, graduating with a degree in English. Since then he had supplemented his full-time job at the bank with the occasional freelance gig. He had also begun writing stories, most of them humorous. Although he doubted that he would ever manage to fully support himself with his writing, he was determined to make the attempt, and over the past year had begun writing more frequently in his spare time.

In contrast, Monique had written poetry since junior high. Most of it was extremely personal, all reflective of the many problems she had overcome in her 23 years. Unlike Daniel, Monique rarely shared her writing with others, and had no interest in publishing it, something that frustrated Daniel to no end.

“I know that we’ve had this conversation before,” Daniel continued, “and I don’t expect it to go any differently than it has in the past, but you’re just too good of a writer to keep your poetry to yourself.”

“I’m really not a very good writer,” she responded, returning to the table.

“Yes, you are,” Daniel replied. “Your poetry is amazing.”

“Have you ever seen me write anything other than poetry?” she asked.

“Well, no, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Trust me, if you read one of my stories you’d agree that I’m not very good.”

“You write stories, too?” Daniel asked, genuinely surprised. Although Monique didn’t often share her writing with others, Daniel had always assumed that she shared all of it with him, an assumption he now realized was slightly presumptuous.

“To call what I’ve written ‘stories’ is an insult to you and everyone else out there who actually knows how to write one. However, I have tried.”

“I want to read them.”

“No, you don’t. Besides, I threw them all away. They were scaring me.”

“Cut it out.”

“No, I’m serious. Just having them around the house was giving me nightmares.” Monique flashed Daniel a huge grin as she said this and took her shot, sinking the six ball.

Daniel was getting irritated, both from the conversation and from the fact that Monique was wasting him on the table. She lined up another simple bank shot and once again proved successful, dropping the five into the left side pocket. He took a strong pull from his glass and waited for his next turn, watching as Monique sank the one ball with an angled shot before finally scratching. She quickly fished the cue ball out of the pocket and handed it to Daniel.

“Look,” he began as he lined up the ten with a long shot, “even if you can’t write short stories, you’re still an excellent poet. Don’t worry about writing fiction. Just focus on your poetry.”

He hit the cue hard, and was surprised when the ten dropped in the rear corner. He was much less surprised when the cue followed it in.

“Ahhh! I give up,” he exclaimed, resting his cue against the table and finishing off his beer. The pitcher was over half empty now, containing just enough Coors Light to refill his glass and top off Monique’s. He picked his up for a sip, then thought better of it as he realized that he was already well past the legal limit and put the glass down on the table.

“Daniel, I hear what you’re saying,” Monique said, looking for her next shot, “but I will never consider myself much of a writer. If I was, I would be able to write something other than poetry.”

“You do realize that you’re not only insulting yourself with that statement, but many of the most highly regarded writers in history?”

“Ehh!” Monique dismissed him, waving her hand as if to brush something from the air in front of her.

“Okay, Ms. Napoli,” Daniel said, laughing. “You’re on the hot seat. You have until we finish this game to prove to me that poetry has no merit as a literary genre.”

Daniel had been looking at his watch as he said this, emphasizing the action to give Monique a sense of being under the gun. As he looked up, he realized that she hadn’t been looking at him, her eyes fixated on something behind him.

“Oh my God, he’s cute,” Monique said quietly, grinning at Daniel.

He turned around to see who she was looking at. There weren’t too many people in the pool hall, and none of the men behind him looked worthy of the break in conversation. Most of them looked underage.

“Which one?” Daniel asked.

“The guy right behind you, in the blue shirt and glasses,” Monique whispered.

Daniel turned again, trying to be inconspicuous. Quickly scanning the thin crowd, his eyes finally found Monique’s subject of interest. One table over from them, a gawky-looking man of about 25 leaned over a pool table, laughing with one of his buddies. From what Daniel could see, the two seemed to be alone.

You have got to be kidding, he thought to himself, an unexpected wave of jealousy sweeping over him.

“I should have known,” he said in response, “you’ve never been drawn to the sort of guys most women would find attractive.”

“He’s cute!” she whispered back, smiling towards the man in the blue shirt.

“If you feel that way, then why don’t you talk to him? There are two of them, so I’ll go chat up his friend while you talk to dork-boy.”

The thought of actually doing this was about as pleasant to Daniel as spending a full weekend with the Mistakes, but he felt obligated to offer it. Besides, he was fairly confident that Monique would turn the offer down, which she did with a quick shake of her head.

“Nah, I could never do that,” she said, “besides, I believe we have a game to finish.”

“And I believe you have dug your own grave with these poetry comments. Please explain yourself, and do remember that the clock is ticking. If you haven’t convinced me of the unimportance of poetry by the time we sink the eight ball, your Jeep will turn into a pumpkin.”

“Save me money on insurance, at least,” she joked. “Is it my shot?”

“Yeah.”

“Perfect. Okay let me clear something up. I never said poetry was unimportant or without merit. I said that if I was a good writer, I’d be capable of writing something else.”

“Okay,” Daniel replied, a bit confused, “but how is that any different?”

“It is different, because although poetry can be beautiful and carry just as much weight as other forms of writing, it’s very easy to write. Well, that’s at least true for my poetry.”

“It’s not easy, Mon. I can’t write it.”

“Sure you could, but it would require changing the way you look at life.”

“Okay, you’ve completely lost me now,” Daniel said, growing frustrated.

Monique looked quickly over at the guy in the blue shirt, and smiled at him again.

“Hey, he smiled back!” she whispered excitedly.

“Great, but go on with what you were saying,” Daniel replied.

“Yeah, okay,” Monique said, her voice once again shifting to a more serious tone. “It’s quite simple, really. I write poetry the same way I try to live my life. It’s the only way I know how to live, and I guess that carries over to my writing…it’s also the only way I know how to write.”

“And how is that?” Daniel said slowly, trying to understand.

“Well, here…let me see if I can show you,” Monique offered, and motioned towards the pool table. “Have you ever wondered why I almost always beat you at pool?”

“Not really. I’m just not very good.”

“Do you know why?”

“Why?” Daniel asked with a shrug.

“The reason that I usually beat you is because we look at the game differently,” Monique answered. She was speaking slowly and in a clear voice, like a college professor giving a lecture. “Look down at the table. What do you see?”

“I don’t know…balls?”

“Of course. And each ball occupies its own spot on the table. They’re scattered, seemingly at random.”

“Okay.”

“They’re not.”

“What?” Daniel asked. He was uncertain if it was the beer, the discomfort he was feeling over Monique’s now ongoing flirtation with the guy in the blue shirt, or if he was simply tired, but this entire conversation was just confusing him.

“They’re not random,” Monique explained. “We’ve set the balls up like that. Whether deliberately or on accident, the balls are in those particular spots because we put them there. A good player sets up all his shots early on in the game, and that’s what you don’t see. I look at this table and I see a series of shots that I’ve laid out, and although you can’t see them yet, you will be all too aware of them after I’ve beaten you.”

With this, Monique made an impressive bank shot, sinking the seven ball in the left side pocket. Daniel was intrigued, but still confused.

“Nice shot, and I understand what you’re saying,” he said, “but what does this have to do with poetry, and what does any of this have to do with life?”

“It has everything to do with both of them, Daniel, because I live my life and I write my poetry the same way. When you first read one of my poems what you see is a series of words, scattered across a page, seemingly at random. Often they appear to take you one way, then unexpectedly veer off in a different direction, catching you by surprise. Seven ball into the back right corner.”

Daniel had been mulling over everything Monique had said to him, but found his attention returning to the game. “You do realize that you have a much easier shot over here, angling the seven into the left side pocket,” he offered.

Monique smiled at him in response and once again pulled back her stick, hitting the cue ball forcefully. Banking off of the left side of the table the cue barely hit the seven ball, nudging it in the opposite direction, and directly into the back right corner pocket. She had now sunk all of her balls, leaving only the eight ball.

“Like I said, different than what you expected. There’s a method behind how I play, Daniel. You might not be aware of it while we’re in the middle of a game, but you can see the final result. That’s the same way I write poetry, and it’s the same way I approach life. I don’t like leaving things to chance, and as often as possible I try to plan things out. In life, you can’t always do that in an obvious way, and much like in pool, it doesn’t always work out. But it’s the only way I know how to live. Let’s see now… Eight ball in the front left corner.”

Monique lined up her stick and completed the shot, easily sinking the eight ball in her chosen pocket.

“Congratulations,” Daniel said, a bit uneasy.

“Thanks,” she replied, picking up her beer to finish it off. Daniel followed suit. As he sipped, he caught Monique’s eyes turning once again towards the guy in the blue shirt.

“He’s been looking at me, Dan,” she said quietly. “I saw him.”

“I saw him too,” he responded, once again feeling an unexpected wave of jealousy. This one was much stronger than the first, undoubtedly enhanced by Daniel’s intoxication. His head felt light, and Daniel was as surprised as Monique when he spoke again.

“You give guys like me hope, you know? I wish there were more girls like you,” he stuttered.

“Huh?”

“You’re a very attractive woman who’s drawn to normal looking guys. You could easily date guys with good looks, strong builds, and lots of money, but instead you date normal, everyday guys. Guys like me.”

“What are you saying, Daniel?”

Daniel’s head had gone from feeling light to spinning, and he realized that he wasn’t certain what he was saying. Angry with himself for drinking too much, he attempted to redirect the conversation.

“Nothing. Anyhow, you should go talk to him.”

“What would I say? I can’t talk to him.”

“Come on, he’s been checking you out. He’s obviously interested. It looks like they just finished their game. I’m going to go challenge his buddy.”

“You’re what?” Monique asked, alarmed.

“I’m sick of hearing you going on about how hot he is. For the past ten minutes, you’ve been more repetitive than the jukebox. Between you and Mick Jones, I’m going to lose my mind.”

With this, Daniel started walking toward the guy in the blue shirt. As he approached their table, he took a quick glance around to see if Monique was following him. She was.

“Hey guys,” Daniel said, trying unsuccessfully to appear sober as he stepped towards them. “I’ve been playing this girl behind me for the past couple of hours now, and I’m sick of getting my ass kicked by her. I’m ready to have it kicked by someone else. I’m Daniel, by the way.”

The guy in the blue shirt looked toward his buddy, who answered, “Hey, I’m Ryan. This is Derrick. Your timing is great. We just finished our game. Derrick and I’ve been playing to see who gets stuck with the bill at the end of the night, but I think it’s a losing cause for me. I’m yet to win against this guy.”

“Well, your luck’s about to change, my friend,” Daniel responded. “What do you say we let the two hustlers play each other here, and you and I move to my table over there? Oh, this is Monique.”

Monique gave Ryan a quick hello and gave Derrick a smile, who smiled back in response.

“Sounds good to me. You cool with that, D?” Ryan asked his friend.

Derrick nodded, and Ryan and Daniel began making their way to the other table. Upon reaching it, Daniel turned toward Monique, who had wasted no time beginning a conversation with Derrick. Ryan saw him do this and leaned toward him.

“You have no idea how glad I am that you finally came over to talk with us,” he said quietly. “I was getting really sick of hearing Derrick go on about your friend.”

“I know the feeling,” Daniel replied, forcing a laugh. “Do you want me to rack?”

“Sure.”

Pulling the balls out of the pockets, Daniel realized that he was no longer having a good time. The jealousy had gotten worse, and his mood was turning foul. The buzz of the quickly filling hall seemed intensified by the alcohol he had consumed. Time seemed to freeze as the voices of the patrons combined with Social Distortion’s “Sick Boys” into a blizzard of sound. Each individual noise seemed to penetrate Daniel’s skin, making him feel cold and ill. He looked back at Monique and Derrick and saw them laughing, her hand on his arm. Looking down toward the table, the balls seemed to spin as if the game had already begun. Trying to steady himself, Daniel looked up at Ryan, who had selected a cue and was chalking up.

“You know, on second thought, do you mind racking?” Daniel asked him. “I really need to use the restroom.”

“Sure, man,” Ryan replied. “Don’t worry about it.”

With a word of thanks, Daniel unevenly stepped toward the bathroom. A large crowd had entered the South End, and now stood between him and his destination. Forcing his way around it, several of them turned to look at him, their faces a mixture of mockery and pretension. One girl laughed loudly, and Daniel instinctively put his hand to his ears. He found himself stumbling now, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. He had never noticed how big the pool hall actually was, and wondered for a moment if he’d make it to the bathroom in time.

Excusing himself, he moved through the back end of the crowd and into the dimly lit men’s room. Praying that the single restroom stall was empty, Daniel felt a quick wave of relief when he found that it was. Slamming the door shut behind him, he was just able to slide the latch into place before leaning over the toilet and vomiting up most of what he had eaten during the past few hours.

When he had finished, he flushed the toilet and unlocked the stall door, making his way to the sink. He turned on the faucet and catching sight of his pallid face in the mirror, instinctively splashed some water on it. The chill helped him recover his senses. He felt childish, and looking up into the mirror once again, he couldn’t help but laugh at himself. As droplets of water ran down his moist face like unshed tears, his mouth twisted into a mocking grin.

“You idiot,” he said out loud. “You’ve had plenty of chances. You have no reason to get upset now.”

Daniel turned off the faucet and dried his face and hands with some paper towels before exiting the restroom as abruptly as he entered it. He made his way to the bar and asked the bartender for a glass of water. He took a deep drink and brought the rest back to the table with him.

“You feeling all right?” Ryan asked as he returned.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Daniel responded. “Just had a bit too much to drink. I’m fine now, though. Let’s play.”

Daniel looked toward Monique’s table and saw her staring at Derrick, enraptured by whatever story he was telling her. A flirtatious grin played at the corners of her mouth as she watched Derrick lean over the table to make a shot. Daniel turned away.

“You mind breaking?” he asked Ryan. “I’m not very good at it.”

“No problem,” Ryan answered. Quickly setting the cue, he fired a powerful shot at the center of the table, scattering the balls in all directions and sinking the twelve in the process.

“Nice break,” Daniel said, his voice listless and tired.

“So,” Ryan said as he lined up his next shot, “what do you do?”

“Well, I work at a bank,” Daniel answered, as Ryan made the unsuccessful shot. “However, I’m trying to make my way as a writer.”

“Really?” Ryan replied, seeming excited at the prospect. As Daniel looked for his first shot, he continued, “What do you write?”

“Different things. Mostly short stories. I’ve also written a few plays, and I write a lot of humorous essays and editorials. I guess I’m pretty eclectic.”

Daniel finally decided on a shot, although it would be a difficult one for him. It was a bank shot, and he wasn’t good at them. Nevertheless, he quickly called it, and was rewarded with a look of uncertainty from Ryan.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked. “That’s not an easy shot.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Uh…okay,” Ryan said, then paused and looked uneasily at Daniel. “You know, I write a little myself, as well.”

“Yeah? What do you write?”

“Poetry.”

Daniel felt his heart sink as he thought of Monique. His memory drifted back to their earlier conversation, and his mouth ran dry. His eyes focused on the cue ball, but he couldn’t find the strength to make his shot. He stood frozen, staring at the white orb in front of him. Ryan appeared put off by this apparent lack of a response, and after a few moments of silence attempted once again to prompt one.

“Do you write poetry?” he asked.

“Actually, poetry is the one thing I’ve never been able to write,” Daniel curtly replied. He pulled back his stick and finally attempted the shot, hitting the cue hard, but not on the spot he had intended. Daniel swore loudly as the cue banked too close to the pocket. It missed his intended target and hit the rear wall, which sent it to the opposite side of the table, directly toward the eight ball. He watched in dismay as the cue lightly tapped the eight, which crawled slowly toward the corner and finally dropped into the left rear pocket.

“Ah, man,” Ryan quickly consoled. “That’s rough. C’mon, let’s set for another game.”

“That’s okay.”

“No, man, I’m serious. Let’s play again. Even if you’re ready to head home, I don’t think your friend over there is ready to quit.”

Daniel turned to look at Derrick and Monique and once again felt ill. Monique was sitting on the rim of the table, her legs dangling over the side and her arms around Derrick, who was standing in front of her. Their bodies were pressed together as their lips met in a deep kiss, both of them oblivious to everything else around them. All games at neighboring tables had stopped, the players fully distracted by the show that was taking place right in front of them. Daniel saw a few people standing off to side whisper to each other, point, and laugh. He felt out of breath and faint, his eyesight blurry, his heart beating both rapidly and loudly. He turned away from Monique and faced his table, looking down at the felt and noticing for the first time how tattered it was. He looked up and made his way around the table, picking up his glass of water and finishing it off. A quick chill spread throughout his body as the water ran down his throat, bringing with it a feeling of rejuvenation and moment of clarity. He had to get out of there.

“Look Ryan,” Daniel said, his voice surprisingly strong, “I’m really sorry about this, but I’m not feeling very well. I think I’m going to get some fresh air and then take off. I’ll have to close out the table.”

Ryan looked understandably irritated.

“Alright, later,” he said, then muttered something indecipherable to himself.

Daniel slowly and methodically picked up the balls, then carried them in the tray to the cashier, slapping his credit card down by the register before the cute dropout behind it had time to give him the price. He managed a weak smile as she wished him goodnight, then quickly shuffled through the door into the brisk air outside.

Pulling a half-empty pack of Camels from his coat pocket, Daniel placed one between his lips, then fumbled with his Zippo for a few seconds before managing to get it lit. He took a deep drag, immediately feeling better. He began walking away from the South End, listening as the sound of the jukebox slowly faded. He stopped before reaching the parking lot and took a few more drags off his cigarette, feeling his strength return with each inhalation. Looking up at the sky, he caught sight of the Big Dipper and Orion’s belt, the only two constellations he was ever able to spot.

“Can’t see the order in anything, can you?” he quietly asked himself. “Just random specks of light spread across a black sky. Colored balls scattered across a table.”

“And you say you can’t write poetry.”

Monique’s voice broke the stillness of the moment, drifting out from behind him and up toward the stars above. Daniel knew that she was standing right behind him. He could also tell she was smiling—he could tell it from her voice—even before he turned around and saw her.

“Hey,” Daniel said quietly, feeling uncertain and a little embarrassed. “You didn’t have to leave. I wasn’t feeling very well and came out for some fresh air.”

“Uh-huh. And you didn’t tell me this, because…” Monique let her voice trail off as her smile grew.

“You were having a good time in there with Derrick, and I didn’t want to interfere or bother you. I’m fine. Go back inside and enjoy yourself, don’t worry about me.”

“I don’t want to go back inside,” she said, then glanced at his cigarette. “You know, those will make you cough up all sorts of nasty things when you get older.” Monique always gave him a hard time about smoking.

“Yeah, I know. Seriously, though, go back inside and challenge Derrick to another game. You shouldn’t—”

“Daniel, Daniel, Daniel,” Monique playfully interrupted. “I don’t want to spend any more time with Derrick. He’s really not all that interesting.”

“You seemed plenty interested a few minutes ago,” Daniel said, his irritation at last breaking through. He took a few more drags of his cigarette, which helped calm him down, before stomping it out on the pavement.

“You’re talking about the kiss, right?” Monique asked.

“Was there more?”

“No, and to tell the truth I didn’t even want to do that, but I needed to get your attention somehow.”

“A simple ‘Hey Daniel!’ would have worked nicely.”

“Well, it was more than that. I needed to know.”

“Know what?”

“You still don’t get it, do you?” Monique said, stepping closer to Daniel. Her eyes sparkled mischievously, and the smile once again returned to her lips. “What did I tell you inside about life?”

“You said that it’s like pool,” Daniel answered, still irritated.

“Not quite. I said that I play pool, write poetry, and live my life in the same way. Everything I do is part of a plan. I’m usually the only person who can see it while it’s in progress, but when I get to the end, everything should start falling into place.”

Daniel was uncertain what his friend was saying, and was about to ask for clarification when Monique suddenly pulled him toward her. Shocked and most definitely surprised, Daniel’s first instinct was to pull back, but Monique wouldn’t let him, holding him tightly and looking directly into his eyes. Slowly, she leaned forward, placing her lips against his in a perfect kiss. Lightheaded now, Daniel wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes. Far too soon, he felt Monique pull back.

“Get it now?” she asked. “I had to know if you felt the same, and I knew you would never tell me.”

Daniel nodded, unable to speak. He smiled and Monique’s eyes seemed to light up in reaction, the last strings of uncertainty cast aside.

“Good,” she said, the playfulness once again returning to her voice. “I knew you weren’t as clueless as you let on. We’re going to have to do something about that smoking, though.”

“I know,” Daniel replied, finally regaining the ability to speak. “When are you going to start?”

“Why, Mr. Nash! Are you always this testy?”

“Only with women who continually beat me at pool.”

“Eh…just be glad I’ve never taken you bowling,” Monique laughed as she placed her arm around Daniel, walking with him away from the South End and into the night.

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