by Lisa Gregoire
“Twelve in the corner.” Lucy gestures with her cue.
“Uh-huh,” Henry nods. They just met.
She takes a wide berth around the pool table to claim territory. Henry steps back. Lucy bends and stretches to reach the cue ball. Even now, she still feels self-conscious standing on tip toes, ass in the air, midriff hanging slack like a bag of sand, the neck of her blouse opening to reveal her empty bra.
Folding over pool tables makes men feel like snipers and women feel like cats in heat— one deadly, one sexy, both ready. A certain woman could linger prone on the table like that to distract male opponents, but Lucy’s not that woman. In school, she got boys’ attention by pinching them and punching their shoulders, pretending to like their shitty music.
She stops to consider the angle on the twelve ball, but laughter distracts her. Her gaze drifts up and around the room. It couldn’t be more different from the redneck country bars and sticky neighbourhood dives where she once played pool. Here, men and women play euchre, nibbling Bridge Mixture and plain chips. Here, guys play shuffleboard, their rolling walkers parked next to cooling cups of tea. It feels like a rich man’s den with its cinnamon wainscoting, blue and gold wallpaper, and wing-backed chairs—everything bathed in natural light. What it doesn’t feel like is home. Not yet.
“There’s a bridge, if you want it,” Henry says.
“I’m good.” She’ll shoot left-handed if she has to. No bridge.
“Sure are.” He elbows George, a retired civil servant. “You know, the green stripe looks easier from here.”
“The fourteen?” she says.
Men tell women how to shoot pool—they can’t help it. They deliver tutorials to total strangers, and only ever to women. It could be arrogance or ignorance or maybe even chivalry; and it used to drive Lucy nuts, make her want to win so badly she’d flub shots which then led to more unwanted advice. But she’s calmer now, has nothing to prove.
One time, and only once, a woman came over to give Lucy a few tips. The woman was half in the bag, but still. It happened in a crowded bar when the other table paused to give her room to shoot while everyone stood silent, staring. Lucy’s friend Glen, with whom she’d gone on obsessively about the audacity of pool hall meatballs, witnessed the exchange from across the table.
“That’s a first,” Lucy whispered to Glen before sinking the eight with a sharp clap.
“Maybe she likes you,” Glen teased.
Lucy is sweating. They have to crank the heat here or most of the residents complain. She pushes up the sleeves of her lavender sweater, plants the heel of her left hand on the green-felted slate and splays her fingertips, making a notch with her raised thumb. She rests the cue there like a dog in a bun. Lucy’s brother Terry taught her that. She used to make a loop of her index finger and thread the cue through, but he winced when he saw her do it and said it was embarrassing. He insisted on showing her the proper way; and since he was her brother and she was still learning, it was okay.
She was eighteen when Terry started taking her to a suburban pub called Fridays. He was making union wages at the mill, so he always paid for drinks and food. It was strange how years of sibling rivalry seemed to vanish overnight, replaced by a budding appreciation for blood ties in a weird adult world, like a ship shedding ballast to take on more precious cargo.
A Michael Bublé song bounces out of the games room speakers. Why don’t they just play Sinatra, for crying out loud, Lucy thinks. She straightens and rolls her shoulders. Pool is hard on the back. She surveys the table again. She’ll need backspin to draw the cue ball to the fourteen, after sinking the twelve. Simple enough.
Backspin: roll forward with purpose then recoil on impact. It’s what people do when they can’t love you.
Lucy learned backspin from Sytukie at a bar North of 60. She was a reporter in her mid-twenties, young and ambitious. The edge of the world was an ideal place to put time and space between preposterous youth and something called career. It was 1970. Young women were taking chances. Her time there was unexpectedly liberating, not just because it was far from high school classmates she couldn’t stand anymore, but because it was full of people way worse off than just misunderstood. Melancholy stops slouching in the face of actual hardship.
She met Sytukie the night after police found his brother. There had been rumours for days, sad whispers and long faces at the post office. As a reporter, Lucy couldn’t help but lean in to the chatter. It was an occupational hazard.
“Qanuippit?” she said to Sy at the bar. She’d seen him around a bunch and knew who he was. Lucy was killing another cold dark Tuesday and so, it seemed, was Sy. He didn’t answer. Maybe he didn’t hear. She was stuck to the wall like a barfly, clutching the upright stick. The room was smoky and too brightly lit, and there were only two other people there—a couple of Inuit playing darts, quiet but getting louder as the night wore on.
She pushed off to resume her solo game just as Sy turned to her with bloodshot eyes.
“Unnukkut. Qanuippit?” she repeated, more softly. “You okay?”
He lit a cigarette and tossed the lighter on the round Formica table. “My brother killed himself. He had a broken heart.”
“Oh,” she said, lowering herself to the edge of a chair—empty beer cans, a full ashtray and about a hundred years of mistrust on the table between them.
“Wanna play pool?” he asked, exhaling smoke.
“Against you?” she laughed. “That’d be a short game.”
“I’ll shoot left-handed.”
It was still a short game.
They met most Tuesdays after that. She paid for the pool, bought him rum and colas, and left packs of cigarettes open on the table. He taught Lucy how to find the key shot—the ball that allows a player to obtain shape for the next shot, and the next. When she chose the right one, he’d nod and grin, gentle brown eyes over a crooked smile, faded T-shirt draped over skinny shoulders like it was still on the hanger at the second-hand store.
“You’re always alone,” he said one night. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
He smiled, but slowly, not sure if she was serious because they were still figuring out what was funny in the other’s world. “Because there are so many,” she said, hoping to make the joke obvious.
“Weird,” he said and shook his head. She wasn’t sure if he meant she was weird or that it was weird she was single.
Sy had a lot of rules when it came to pool. “Don’t be an amateur. Never shoot a duck,” he said, referring to easy balls in front of pockets.
“So tempting though, to take the easy way out.”
“It guards the pocket, acts like defence. Practice hard shots. You’ll get them eventually.”
Lucy was used to going after things she couldn’t get: jobs, men, insight, a B-cup brassiere. Whether it was naiveté or grandiosity that propelled her towards unreachable things and train-wreck failures, she never knew. It was a manufacturer’s defect.
But she trusted Sy and sure enough, after months of smoky clothes stinking up her bedroom and mid-week hangovers, she started nailing tough shots. Then he added a new rule: no sinking a ball until you know where you’re going next. In pool, that’s called “the leave.”
“Put some junk on it, Luce,” he’d say, demonstrating side spin, top spin and freezing the cue ball dead. “No more scrambling after every shot.”
“I’m good at sinking balls,” she told him, “but I’m terrible at leaving.”
“You’re leaving anyway. Take control of it.”
“I prefer to take what’s offered and then . . . whatever. I’ll figure it out.”
He took a drag, made his mouth a tight O and jawed a smoke ring that undulated towards her like a noose. “How does that work for you?”
She waved the smoke away. “It’s tiring.”
“Leaving is a gift you give yourself.”
“Ooh, that’s deep.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, bowing dramatically, arms outstretched. When he straightened up, he looked at Lucy and laughed. She laughed too and shook her head. Then he breathed deeply and took aim at something else. “Hey, you should come to my place sometime. Make you some caribou stew.” He looked down, then up at her, then down again, waiting for the cue ball to make contact.
“Oh,” Lucy said, backspinning. “I’m not . . . I thought we were just . . .”
“It’s okay. No problem,” he said, cheeks darkening. He put a quarter in the pool table slot and shoved the mechanism in and out—chick-chick. It sounded like a rifle cocking. The balls clattered down the ramp to the open chamber at the end.
“I’ll miss you when you leave,” he said, placing the triangle on the table and dropping the balls in two by two, arranging them so stripes and solids never touched, plopping the black heart in the middle.
“Who says I’m leaving?”
“People like you always do.”
Lucy leans over the table, annoyed by the cheesy easy-listening playlist and the smell of camphor muscle ointment and everyone saying “Wassat?” and “Eh?” At seventy-five, she’s too young to be here, even in the independent-living wing. But after she fell on the ice last winter, she got scared of living alone. She aims to strike low on the cue ball then pauses to consider the back of her left hand, spattered with age spots like polka-dot henna. The only dignified journey into old age is endurance, she thinks. And, if you can swing it, a little flair. She levers her right arm like a pendulum from the elbow, keeping the rest of her body stone still.
“Clack.” The satisfying sound of hard plastic resins colliding. The twelve rolls languidly to the corner pocket and drops softly into the leather mesh. Balls used to roll quicker and drop harder, but there’s something to be said for a slow burn. The cue ball scoots back and stops near the fourteen.
“The lady can shoot,” Henry says to George.
“She’s just getting started,” says Pierre. Pierre’s at a nearby table playing dominoes with Flo, both still wearing the wedding bands of their dead spouses. The January sun is low, glowing like a neon lemon through windows moist from condensation. It will be dark soon. Lucy rounds the pool table corner, cue in hand like a walking stick, dragging her right fingertips along the smooth mahogany side rail. She stops and scowls at the cue ball which has rolled a bit too far.
She picks up the cube of blue chalk from the rail, places it on the cue tip and twists, the rasping sound so familiar. She doesn’t have the cheek to do what she used to do—hold the chalk on the tip and roll the bottom of the shaft with the sole of her foot, like a dog shaking a back leg. The last time she tried it with her new orthotics she nearly tripped herself. So much for dignity and flair.
“Fourteen in the side,” she says, waving her stick like a magician. When the angles reveal themselves, it feels like magic; but it’s really just math. Sy told her that.
Henry nods, his upright cue pressing into the cream, cable-knit sweater that swaddles his belly. “Good choice,” he says.
She rolls her eyes.
Brandon was wearing a sweater like that the night they finally had sex after months of circling each other like wrestlers. She still pictures him pulling it over his head and dropping it to the motel’s faded carpet. She’s not sure if he actually did that or if she’s remembering a scene from a movie, but that’s the image that helps her fall asleep. Brandon was an ace photographer, older, aloof, with dark wavy hair, and sexy as hell. Also married. It was after Iqaluit, her first job at a daily newspaper, and Lucy was scared to death of him.
“When you’re doing an interview, don’t ever, ever introduce me as your photographer,” he told her on their first assignment together, after she’d done that very thing. “I’m not your photographer. You’re my stenographer.”
It was the mid-seventies, the peak of women’s lib. She didn’t need a man’s approval, but a little respect would have been nice. She eventually earned it with a story she wrote about a gang shooting and a little boy caught in the crossfire. The morning it ran on front, Brandon came over, leaned on her desk with flat palms, his faded Levi’s shirt rolled up over muscular forearms, and said it was the best thing the paper had published in months.
“Jesus Christ, my heart was breaking,” he said.
“Thank you, Brandon,” she said, feeling her own heart break with pride. “That means a lot to me.”
He knocked gently on her desk two times before turning to leave. “Keep it up, superstar.”
They became the go-to team for breaking news, usually arriving at some dot on the map mid-afternoon after a couple of hours in a rental, music up, windows down, trying to forget what lay ahead—grieving moms, condescending small-town cops, angry locals, airless courtrooms, burned-down houses, and funeral parlours. You had to be sharp and focused on the road because there were expense accounts and high expectations. But you also had to look at the big picture, see all the angles, try to find something deep and universal, or at least a good scoop. Teams on the road spent long hours together, working and not working.
“Nice. Who taught you that?” Brandon asked, the first time they played pool. Lucy had just sunk a ball and spun the cue ball sideways for a sweet set-up. They were in some northern Alberta nothing town. The bar always had a name like Lucky’s or The Gold Spur. There was usually a threadbare table in a place like that and two cues if you were lucky, both heavy and warped with tips worn down. She was halfway through her second beer and feeling tall and charming, though she was neither.
“Iqaluit Legion,” she told him, before sinking the next ball.
He tilted his head sideways and whistled. “Nice.”
“Ya,” she said, dropping a tricky combination that surprised even her. “I know my way around a stick.” She was trying to be witty but didn’t know him well enough for that kind of joke yet, and she was immediately embarrassed.
“I see,” he said.
A suspicious death months later sent them down a long prairie road with a police scanner on the dash, a notebook on her lap, and his gear at her feet.
“Styx okay with you?” he asked, turning up the radio volume and singing a few lines.
“Love it,” she lied, stealing glances as he brought hot coffee to his lips and blew. At a red light he reached down to make sure his flash was charged and his hand grazed her bare calf. She held her breath and looked out the window, but all she could see were oil jacks pumping up and down, up and down. Not helpful.
That night over billiards, standing at the end of the table, she admitted her biggest weakness was the break. It was an invitation. He smiled and positioned himself behind her, put his hands on her shoulders and gently kicked her feet wider. He folded her left fingers down around the end cushion and pushed the cue underneath, so that the tip emerged between her two middle fingers. Then he placed his palm on her upper back and leaned her forward.
“Now,” he said, leaning in beside her, smelling of the motel’s fruity soap, “hold the cue firm to the rail, and give it a strong level thrust.” She turned to him and raised her eyebrows. He laughed, tipping his head back to show his neck before letting his green eyes fall back upon hers.
She left his motel room before dawn the next morning, so other reporters wouldn’t see her barefoot and half-dressed in the hall. Later at breakfast, in the motel’s greasy spoon, Brandon traced a figure eight on the back of her hand with his finger.
“God, where were you fifteen years ago?” he said.
“Ah,” Lucy said, doing the math. “Grade 7?”
“Jesus, really?” He pulled his hand away. “Look, Luce, you’re a great writer. And you’re fun, but I can’t . . . we can’t . . .”
“Of course, no,” Lucy said, leaning back to gain distance, heart compressing into a walnut. She shook her head quickly, dismissively, and tried to sound casual. “You’ve got a family. I get it.” She felt like she’d been kicked in the chest.
“I don’t think we can work together anymore,” he said.
Brandon had terrific backspin, but it was the clean break she remembered most. All the balls nestled together and then . . . boom! Everything flying apart. Was it because he really liked her or because he really didn’t? She never found out.
Good evening residents. Tonight’s supper will be beef bourguignon with scalloped potatoes and green beans. Service begins in one hour.
Lucy groans. Always with the meat and potatoes. The client services manager here at Oaks Ravine said there’d be lighter options available, but she hasn’t seen many.
The games room bar is now open for happy hour.
“Hallelujah,” Henry says, putting his coffee cup down. “Lucy, can I get you something?”
“Sure, I’ll have white wine. Thank you.”
“No no, I’m fine.”
Lucy sinks the fourteen neatly. The cue ball glances off the eight on its way to her nine, as she’d hoped. Henry turns to George before going to the bar and says in a loud aside, “I haven’t sunk a ball yet! Maybe the wine will slow her down.” Lucy looks up from the table and catches his eye. He shrugs and feigns embarrassment. Is he flirting? His hair is silver and wavy over top blue eyes. She sees his younger self and wonders if he sees hers.
Tonight’s movie is Ocean’s 8. An award-winning ensemble cast led by Sandra Bullock brings you this fast-paced and witty thriller about the heist of the century. Showtime is seven in the theatre.
She sits down to rest, and George joins her.
“I think he likes you. Engineer. Owned his own company.” He rubs his thumb and index finger together to suggest money.
. . . and don’t forget tomorrow morning’s excursion to Tillingate Shopping Centre. The bus departs at nine a.m. sharp. Interested residents should be in the lobby by eight forty-five.
“The last thing I need is a man,” Lucy says.
“No, the last thing you need is a stroke.”
She laughs. “You are so right.”
George spies Henry on his way back to the table. “Give him a chance. He’s a nice guy.”
“Pinot Grigio for the lady.” Henry tips his glass into Lucy’s before taking a sip of his beer. “Still your shot?”
“Indeed,” she says, rising slowly on sore feet. She makes her way to the far end of the table and looks for the key shot like Sy taught her. The nine maybe. She could sink the eleven after that, and then the eight. Game over. She looks around the room, everyone intent upon something, talking, laughing. Everyone except Henry, who is watching her. He smiles and holds up his glass in a virtual cheers. She smiles a half smile, tucks her grey hair behind her left ear.
“Nine in the corner.” She bends at the hips, takes aim, then shifts slightly left before hitting the cue ball.
The nine misses the pocket, and the white ball goes down instead.
“Scratch,” Lucy shrugs, taking a seat.
“The wine is working already!” Henry says, slapping his hands on his thighs and pushing himself up.
“Yes,” George says, raising his eyebrows to Lucy.
Henry plucks the cue ball from the pocket and stands at the end of the table, rolling it in his hand, his back to Lucy and George. “Well, thanks to my opponent I have lots to choose from. Three in the side, I guess.” He places the cue ball on the scratch line and knocks the three down, then the five.
“The boy can shoot,” Lucy says, taking a sip of wine.
“Once in a while,” Henry says. “Six bank corner.” She stands and peeks over his curved back as he positions himself at the cue ball. She can see by the angle that he’ll probably miss, and she’s tempted to tell him so. She opens her mouth, then closes it. He shoots, misses, and pulls his glasses off his face dramatically. “Damn things! I’ve been meaning to get them checked.”
The cue ball is hooked behind one of Henry’s balls. “Nice leave,” Lucy sighs, approaching the table as Henry retreats. She knows there’s a shot in there somewhere, a jump shot or double bank, but she’s too tired to try that hard. “Just a shot,” she says. Her brother Terry would have sipped his beer and started planning his next move. Sy would have been very disappointed. Brandon would have been shocked.
She strikes the cue ball hard without really aiming at anything and holds her breath to watch the drama unfold, relaxing, if only for a moment, in the randomness of chance. Balls roll in all directions. The eight crawls to the lip of a side pocket, lingers there, then drops. Lucy laughs.
“Did I just win?” Henry asks.
“Looks like it.”
“Imagine that. Shall we play again?”