Quigley concentrated on the pool balls. They were old, scarred from ancient battles on green felt. Though he was far ahead, his grimace made him seem like a commander leading his troops into unequal combat. His opponent, a pickup player whom Quigley hardly knew, tunelessly whistled his impatience.
Quigley leaned over the table and made his shot. The cue ball rolled gently toward the yellow five ball, tapped it lightly, and caromed into perfect position for the dark red three ball.
The pool-hall regulars stared at this new-man-Quigley, so different from the one they had known. Clean-shaven, with neatly trimmed hair, he was not the brooding menace of six months ago. His silk tie (his tie!), dark blue with red speckles, disappeared into his shirt front so as not to interfere with his stroke. But most amazing, he did not hammer the balls, but finessed them, caressed them unprotestingly into the pockets.
"Ah, shit," his opponent muttered. "Here's the hundred. There's no way I'm going to beat you." He dropped the money on the table and left. Indifferent, Quigley sank the three ball.
The bartender, a genial, skinny old man with a red face, spoke up tentatively, as if unsure of their relationship.
"Hey Quig, you and Marcey break up, or what?" He drew Quigley a beer. "You been with her in that detective business and don't get to see your tried and true friends for God knows how long, and all of a sudden you're here. You got tired of the"
Quigley looked straight into the bartenders eyes. No emotion on his face: it was his old look, implacable, a look that said I will kill you if you say it. The bartender blanched and turned. With trembling hands he polished some glasses.
Quigley found a dark corner table barely illuminated by the pool hall lights. Every now and then he sipped his beer. What the hell am I doing here? Damn her, why does she have to change? Everything was great. The sack time, well, after how many years as a whore she sure knows how to make a man feel good and what she calls coming, The Goddess. Yeah, when The Goddess comes she loves it . Damn her, why does she want to have a kid?
His mother's face floated into consciousness. He wanted to smash something, to blot out the memory of what she had done to him, but at the same time felt her sadness, something he had not understood before. "Goddamn!"
Everyone around him became still.
"Another beer," he called to the bartender.
The players returned to their games.
Aldivar walked in with two heavyset companions respectfully behind him. A slight man in a formal, pinstriped blue suit, he commanded fear and respect in his own right. Desperate people went to him for loans; he ground massive interest out of them daily.
He smiled genially, showing perfectly white, straight teeth. "I'll be a son-of-a-bitch," he called out in his high-pitched voice, "is that Quigley sitting over there in the corner?" With a few steps he reached the table and looked down at Quigley, who almost squirmed in his chair. "I been looking for you. Ain't you gonna invite me, your old buddy Aldivar, to sit down?"
Quigley wanted to rise, stare him down and leave the pool hall. He had left Marcey after a bitter argument, but everything felt incomplete without her. Now Aldivar was here to wedge them further apart.
Quigley could find no words to describe how he felt about Marceyexcept he felt miserableand resented it. In spite of his resentment, the unarticulated emotion urged him to move. The muscles in his legs tightened in anticipation of thrusting him up, but he could not rise. Aldivar's grin reminded him of the uncomplicated days, the days before his dying mother had cursed him. The chair seemed to grip him, to resist any movement away from it. And he feared that if he stood he would somehow sink into the floor. Aldivar's grin grew broader.
Quigley would prove his mother wrong. Nothing could stop him from returning to his old life. The hell with Marcey... there were always other whores... she was nothing special. His mother's sad face floated into his consciousness, then crumpled against the rock of his decision. They're all whores.
The silence held.
Aldivar repeated, "Old pal, is OK if I join you?"
"Sure, sit down, Aldivar," Quigley muttered. "You and me are still buddies."
"Buddies? Yeah, right." Aldivar sat across from Quigley. Without looking around, he said in a conversational tone of voice, "I sure as shit wish somebody would bring me a beer."
The bartender leaped into action. In a moment he delivered a bottle and glass, placed them in front of Aldivar then quickly departed. Aldivar slowly poured the amber liquid into the glass, sprinkled salt on the surface to collapse the rising foam, then drank deeply. "All he has is crap American beer," he said, then finished the glass and refocused his attention on Quigley.
"Buddies? I don't think so." A slight sneer crossed his lips. "A buddy don't just walk out for a slut." Quigley's body jerked. "He don't leave his buddy high and dry with no enforcer to make sure a loan is paid off. There were some needed their legs broke and I didn't have nobody. You cost me money, Quig, but I forgive you." Aldivar poured more beer into his glass and drank it. "You coming back, or are you staying with the bitch? What is she, a private dick now instead of a public whore? He giggled at his witticism. "Are you a man or what?"
"Yeah, you bastard, I'm back. I just took a vacation, is all. So me and the s" he started, felt his throat constrict, then forced out, "me and the slut spent some time together. No big thing." He sneered, felt as if he were about to expose a deeply private secret, but plunged ahead. "Imagine, she wanted to have a baby, make me a father." The laugh scraped his vocal cords.
As he spoke, Quigley felt himself become heavier, pulled deeply into the chair. In spite of his words he desperately wanted to run back to Marcey and bury his face in her bosom and plead for forgiveness. But his mother's face intruded. At her death, she had cursed him to do nothing but good in his life, to live respectably with a wife and children, and he hated her for it. To return to Marcey would be giving in. He would not do it.
Aldivar laughed, a high pitched wheeze that never seemed to fully realize itself. "You? Married? A father with baby drool all over you and diapers? I mean whores get sentimental, but they always remain whores. You're smart to come back to real life." He paused, sipped some beer, and said, "You ready to get back to work?"
"Goddamn, yeah." With a sweep of his arm, Quigley swept the table clean of empty bottles and glasses. "Bartender," he shouted, "from now on only imported beer for me and Aldivar, understand? Next time, I break the place up if you don't have any!" Grinning humorlessly, he turned to Aldivar. "You don't need those two goons anymore, I'm back. What have you got for me to do?"
"If you don't mind, Quig, I'll hold on to them. They ain't got much for brains, but theyre handy now that business is picking up. You know, times are always tough for poor people and banks ain't gonna give them squat, so I come and rescue them. I need these two to handle the extra work." He frowned. "I wish you hadn't knocked the beer over."
At these words, the bartender rushed to resupply him. "Quig," the bartender fawned, "don't worry, give me a few hours and I'll have the best for you."
Quigley glowered. The heaviness made him feel as if he were more a monster than a man.
"OK, Quig, here's the deal." Suddenly he snapped his fingers. "Hey, wait a minute, I owe you something for taking out that vampire. He was killing my girls." Aldivar shuddered. "God, he cut their throats and lapped their blood. What a screwball." He reached into his coat pocket and took out an envelope. "Here, this is for you."
Quigley tried to resist, wanted to say that he had not captured the demented man for Aldivar's money, but now even his tongue and lips felt heavy. He could not even shake his head.
Aldivar continued: "Raymondo what's-his-name, I can never get those Z names right, up on the north side, you know who I mean, the Mexican with the limp, owes me. He's a day late with his payment. Go collect."
Quigley knew the man, an unassuming wage slave, a family man who sometimes bet with Aldivar in hopes of hitting it big. Apparently he had gotten in too deep and now faced collection. Tough! Whoever they were, Quigley knew his job.
"Hey, Ray, como esta?"
The burly man, in sweat-stained clothing, looked up from working on the engine of a battered old car. Three children laughed and giggled, not at all interested in Quigley. The two older girls plaited yellow flowers in their young sister's hair. They had the prettiness of innocence.
"Who the hell . . ." He saw Quigley and froze, then grinned weakly. "Oh, hey there Quigley old buddy, como esta to you." He limped toward him, hand tentatively outstretched.
Quigley remained immobile.
Raymond laughed nervously. "What you doing around here? Hey, you aren't . . . don't tell me you're back with the shark. For God's sake, Quigley, by my sainted mother you're not coming after me?"
Quigley stared at him. "You borrow, you pay back. That's the rule. You bet and lose, that's your problem I don't collect the money, that's my problem, but I don't like problems so its your problem."
Quigley's tone held a menace that penetrated the children's innocence. One of them began to cry. A woman, perhaps in her forties came out, stared at the two men, saw their expressions. Her body became rigid and her round face puckered with worry. The baby in her arms whimpered.
Raymondo looked at the woman helplessly, then turned back and said, "Listen, Quigley, the man's a bloodsucker. I had to borrow money to get a new car. Yeah, a new old car that hardly runs, but I can get to work with it. I only took a thousand from him, and the weekly interest is taking the food out of my babies' mouths. What was I supposed to do, let my family be kicked out on the street and starve? I'm a man and I'll die before I let that happen. You're here to break my arm? Go ahead, do it. But if I can't work, how the hell do I pay him back? And what happens to my Rosa and the four kids? Is that you what want?" For a moment his shoulders sagged, then he straightened. "I'll fight you. You'll have to kill me. Then maybe she'll have a chance to get a better man."
Quigley had assumed that Raymondo was another fool who didn't know what he was doing, dropping money into the black hole that was Aldivar's horse book. But he was what he seemed to be, a working man, poor, with sweaty hands trying to hold on to some shred of dignity that inexorably slipped from his grasp. Aldivar's grin, always so genial, shimmered into consciousness. Quigley felt himself pressed deeper. "Do only good," like a banner, floated across his vision of Aldivar's face, blotting out the grin. The heaviness hed felt earlier now held him down. He forced some steps toward Raymondo, who assumed an awkward fighting stance.
Quigley saw Raymondo's lip quiver. Then he couldnt move. Quigley pulled back his lips into a grimace of a smile. "See, Raymondo, it's like this."
He took another step forward.
Back in the pool hall, with two imported beers on their table, Quigley gave Aldivar an old paper bag with a solid mass in it. "Here's the money," he said.
Aldivar dumped the contents on the table and counted it, then laughed wheezingly. His perfect white teeth gleamed in the dim light. "Them Mexicans don't know how to count. There's two thousand here! He only owed me one. Where the hell did he get the money? Did he knock over a bank or something?" He shrugged. "Ahh, makes no difference. What can you do with them, they always come through." He laughed his high-pitched laugh. "If he wants to give me extra, what are friends for? Maybe I'll find some other use for him. Hey, didja have to get rough with him?"
Quigley shrugged. "What difference does it make?" He poured himself some beer and casually said, "Ain't you gonna give him back the extra?"
"Are you crazy? A guy makes a mistake and gives me money, and you want me to give it back? Not me. It's mine. He can come and try to collect it if he wants."
Quigley finished his beer, then leaned forward. "I figured that's the way it would be." Part of him wanted to keep quiet, to go along, to be the man he used to be, but the words poured out. "I used to think you was a straight guy, but you ain't. You're just a cheap hustler."
Aldivar gasped. "What the hell you saying?"
"Listen, motherfucker, you know me. I'm a standup guy. A guy owes you money and I collect it for a fee. That's no big thing. But you are what he called you: a bloodsucker. Youre no better than that goddamn vampire." He leaned forward into Aldivar's face, and growled, "I don't want no part of you no more."
Very few men could withstand the force of Quigley's rage, but Aldivar merely sneered. "Whatre you talking about, old buddy? Ain't we back together like old times? Since when did you get religion, that you worry about someone else? Hey, that slut, she really got her hooks into you." Again, Aldivar wheezed his high-pitched laugh.
The last vestige of weight that held Quigley down suddenly dissolved. His grin was feral. "Listen, Aldivar, that extra thousand is a loan, not a mistake. Raymondos taking a hundred percent a day, so you owe him two big ones. Pay up. Now."
Humor vanishing, Aldivars jaw dropped. "Are you crazy? You're collecting from me? Is this some kind of goddamn joke?" Then his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute," he said as if discovering a significant truth. "You gave him money from what I gave you. He didnt rob no bankyou gave it to him!" He paused, stared at Quigley. "You bastard, you set me up!"
For a moment something like sadness flickered across Aldivars face; then it hardened. With a flourish he snapped his fingers and waved his two companions forward. "Break him into little pieces."
The pool players scurried away.
Unhurried, Quigley stood up and smashed Aldivar in the mouth, felt the white, even teeth crunch under his massive fist. The two thugs, shouting obscenities, charged straight at him. Quigley dodged to one side, grabbed an arm and twisted. There was a sharp snap; the man screamed and staggered away. The second man swung a sap at Quigley's head. Quigley tried to twist out of the way, but it smashed into his left shoulder. Grunting with pain, Quigley sagged to his knees.
The man laughed, raised the sap again, and brought it down. In spite of his pain, Quigley lifted his arms and made a V with his wrists, catching the descending blow before it could do damage. He put his shoulder into the man's gut, shoving him back, then lurched to his feet. The man moved toward him. With his good right hand, Quigley grabbed a beer bottle and smashed it, presented its gaping, jagged edge to the man. "OK, motherfucker, let's get it on."
Grinning, the man feinted to the right, the left, then swung the sap straight at Quigley's head. But before it struck, Quigley's arm shot forward, jamming the bottle into the thugs face. The thug shrieked and staggered backwards. Blood streamed from his right cheek where the jagged glass had slashed through tissue to the bone.
Quigley turned to Aldivar. Blood soaked the handkerchief Aldivar pressed against his mouth and smeared his white shirt and red tie with a deeper red. Reaching into Aldivar's coat pocket, Quigley retrieved the cash-filled envelope. "You understand something, bastard. You stay away from me and mine, and you stay away from Raymondo. You got any business with them, you got to come through me. Got it?"
Still dazed, Aldivar stared at him with unfocused blank eyes.
Quigley slapped him hard. "You got it?"
Leaving the bar, Quigley wondered what the hell he was doing. Aldivar's meanness was no surprise to him. Why, after all these years, was he upset about it? And Quigley couldn't fathom the emotions that threatened to drive him back to Marcey. All he could think of was what his mother had done to him, how he hated everything she wanted for him, yet he was thinking about Marcey like a thirsty man thought of cool water. The hell with her, he thought, the hell with her, the hell with her, but the words had no meaning. His mother's face, now vivid and filled with sadness, reminded him of the joy they had shared when he was a child. Tears streamed down his face.
He found the word that defined his feelings for Marcey and ran to their apartment.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.