Best of Three – new short story – by Michael Botur

‘First you tell me I’m the leastest favourite, then you call me a cheater. I’ve had a gutsful. I’m walking.’

Best of Three

New short story

Michael Botur

*

We locate the room with lights hanging low over green rectangliar ponds. The tables.

Time to kick Pop’s arse at pool.

‘Don’t need one of those cheap ones,’ Pop grumbles as I select a cue from the wall for him. First criticism of the night. There’ll be a hundred other disses, slights and slams at the The Papanui Club tonight. Cheers, Pop.  

He lifts his black plastic cue case onto our table, opens the lid. Damn cue looks nearly new. ‘Maple,’ he goes, ‘Genuine maple, unlike that fake rubbish you’re holding. Ere: forty bucks. Get us a couple pints. Make yourself useful. Keep the change, I know you need it.’

I put down my crappy cue, take a couple steps across the carpet and pause. ‘I can pay for my own beer, Pop, Jesus.’

‘Thought you had debt collectors on your case. Don’t you have to repay WINZ?’

I throw up my hands. Some things in life are true, but you don’t say ‘em to a man’s face. I stomp over to the bar, slap two of the old man’s stupid insulting twenties on the bartop, bring back the beers. Pop says ‘Much obliged,’ ’cause he thinks it’s clever to go through life never saying Thanks. He shoots a cracker of a shot, smiles with half of his face and does a cocky wink as a solid ball and a stripe each go down a pocket.

Pop rests with one hand in the pocket of his wool overcoat, as in Hurry up, Junior. Me and Pop usually do our weekly catch-up over at the Hornby Club if I’m not locked up or in detox or whatever, cept the Hornby Club’s shut for renos this month. Everyone there is used to how fussy Pop is now that he’s retired, with his combed platinum hairpiece and scarf and shiny brown shoes and how he’s the only man that drinks Guinness. Today, over-dressed and over-anal for this place, he’s getting a few queer looks from the only other people in here at 2pm on a weekday, these old hunters with epic bellies.

Pop places his gloved fingers on the felt, lining up the yellow and potting it. He then sinks his maroon ball, his red, his blue, his orange.

‘Didn’t realise you were participating, sorry,’ he goes, blowing the tip of his cue like it’s a gun barrel. ‘Table’s all yours.’

I’ve had a toot on the ole pipe this morning so I’m a bit jittery and I’ve chosen a cue that’s bent, so I’m lucky to knock my orange ball down, though it jars over the hole and my cue ball rolls to a place where I don’t want it to be, stuck behind Pop’s black.

Least I get another shot.

‘I’ll have to use the spider to get over,’ I tell the old bastard.

I manage to make my cue ball pop over the black and I’ve nudged one of my balls successfully into a side pocket and I’m already putting the spider rest back under the table when Pop manages to get hold of some words.

‘FOUL FOR YOU, LAD. There has to be consequences, when you stuff up.’

Pop’s barging me out of where I’m standing. I let him have my spot. Cloud of cologne.

He takes a shot.

It’s a miss.

‘There’s rules against putting a man off when he’s trying to take his shot, boy. You’ll pay for this.’

‘Try cheering up once in your life, Pop, you ain’t got many years left. I done this empathy course in jail, right, and you know what they teached us? They teached us there’s no point being unhappy. Waste of your life, yo. It’s half the reason Mum killed herself.’

I’ve let the Guinness and crack get the better of me. Shouldn’t’ve mentioned Mum.

Unhappy?! I’m trouncing you! Do I seem unhappy?’ Pop necks his beer, presses his purple nose into my face, takes a fifty from his leather wallet and forces it into my fingers. ‘Listen pal, my daughter – your bleeding sister – works for the Red flipping Crescent, she speaks fluent Arabic and she talks to the United Nations High Commissioner on a daily basis. That make a father unhappy? Eh? Meanwhile here’s Timmo, your younger brother running Shoefinder Dot Com in London! If having two successful children is unhappy, then call me unhappy.’

Pop turns his pink face away, bracing himself on the table, staring down at his balls. I can see his back and shoulders billowing. His breathing takes a while to return to normal.

After staring at the fifty dollar note for ages, wishing I had the guts to drop it, I go and fetch the beers.

I guzzle half my Guinness, lean over the table real casual then sink my blue. The red and yellow go in next, though I wasn’t really aiming for them. I miss and it’s Pop’s turn so I go have another sip of my beer, then another couple sips, then reply to some texts and by the time I look up, Pop’s caught up and he’s onto the black.

He misses, smacking one of my balls accidentally. He stands there, not blinking, wondering how he fucked up.

‘Sall good, Pop, take the shot again.’

‘Decent people don’t bend the rules.’

‘Who even cares? No one knows but us.’

He forces me to shoot. I send the white ball rolling and it settles gently behind the black. Pops smirks.

Second game, I hit the red hard enough to knock her off the table.

I’m immune to the snorts of the fat-bellied old punters in camo gear as I reach under their legs to fetch the ball, my face inches from their crotches. I’m three beers deep and my head bobs like a dinghy.  

‘You still have a shot,’ Pop goes, examining his gold watch. ‘Time for a few more flukes. Set em up for you, I did. Enjoy the fruits of my labour.’

I bend over the table, line up a great shot, but I can feel Pop’s eyes drilling into my back. Hard to concentrate. Pop was principal of Shirley Boys High School before retirement dumped him on his arse. He personally coached a few sports teams, yelling criticisms at the kids before he’d come home and chew the shit out of my brother, my big sis, and especially me.

Mum copped it too, hard out.

I take a deep breath, close my eyes, whack the ball with the stick. When I open them, the purple isn’t on the table.

‘Typical,’ Pop snorts, studying some harness racing on TV. ‘Let me know when your luck runs out.’

I sink another, actually, and another, and we get down to the black, the two of us chasing it around the table. I guess the effect of the beers and smoke cancels out the wonky cue which is why I’m so accurate. Finally I get the black down after three attempts.

‘Best of three?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Like, d’you wanna play a third game to decide who’s the real winner? We only just got here. May as well.’

Pop checks his watch, tilting it so it can be “accidentally” noticed by the cackling old fat boys in their hunting boots.

‘I suppose I can make time.’

*

Pop breaks and manages to sink one of each colour. He shakes his head like he’s disgusted. He plays the game mostly sinking two in a row, which is real decent, cept his insistence on playing fouls has him getting mad at the table.

‘You rigged this godforsaken thing,’ he goes after I sink three in a row. His fingers fondle the table, looking for traps or magnets. His eyes are red now and the beer’s made him knackered.

‘I won, man, fair and square.’

‘Correction: losing due to another man’s foul isn’t the same as winning.’

Pop demands to swap cues. I give him the shitty cue and take his heavy maple stick. While he’s distracted by the boxing on the TV screen, I nail all my final balls, scull my beer and sink the black, a perfect shot with the white ball slowing down just on the lip of the hole.

Pop glares. ‘This cue is rigged.’ He yanks the stick out of my hand and shoves my old wobbly cue back in my arms.

‘So you wanna play on? Cause if you do, it’d have to be best of five, y’know, with the maths and whatnot.’

Pop is too red-faced to even listen, fuming and wincing like his chest is full of needles. He says some crap about the table being tilted, and if not that then the cue ball is weighted. He swaps the white with a ball from another table, racks up the colours, orders me to break them while he watches through a microscope.

Cause I’ve gotten back Mr Reliable Dodgy Cue, I’m feeling warm and I’m winning and I’m loving the boxing on the TV.

Pop agonises over this one shot. The cue is supposed to knock the orange into the yellow to bump the purple into a side pocket. It’s beautiful, with both the yellow and the purple going in, and Pop takes the game leaving me with four balls still on the table.

Problem is, I take the next game. In total I’ve won three against his two.

‘Awesome playing with ya.’ I check the time on his watch. ‘I’m late for a piss test. Gotta buy wee-wee off this dude. Laters.’

Pop is glaring at something out the window in the carpark. He’s choking his cue.

I’ve taken four big steps when I hear him beg.

‘Best of seven, then.’

*

Pop completely owns the sixth game, playing aggro, road-ragey, muttering to himself, telling me to stay clear, breathing so heavy over the table I see a couple drops of drool leak out, like his body’s warmed up, face flushed pink, but it’s like his skin’s starting to hurt and he takes his coat off and hangs it up.

By the time I’m racking up the balls for the seventh game, I’ve lost count of how many beers I’ve had. I’m more concerned about the effect on Pop, cause there’s dried white foam around his lips and he clutches the leaner posts like he’s on a ferry, swaying.

Whatever, pop. I’m not playing that well since I had a quick toot on my pipe in the handicapped toilet. He’s owning Game 7 for a while, fair and square, til he completely fumbles an easy shot on the eight cause he’s not pinching his cue properly. I take advantage, sinking four outstanding balls. Confident, precise shots. I’m relaxed from my smoke. Meanwhile the old man inspects his numb fingers like he’s had a bee sting.

I’m about to take Game 7 and I strike a massive shot from the far opposite corner. It whams the ball into the hole but the white hops up onto the edge of the table, does a little dance and rolls off.

Pop picks it up, shaking his head like I’ve just dropped a Fabergé egg.

‘A loss is a loss, I’m afraid. And a win is a win.’

‘Hang on one tick: you explicitly said that stuffing up a shot when you’re ahead isn’t the same as the other person beating you.’

‘I said no such thing.’

‘YOU DID.’

‘Heavens to Murgatroyd, your brother and sister don’t yell like this.’

‘TIMMO AND JASMINE RECKON THEY’RE TOO COOL TO HANG OUT WITH THEIR DAD, DUMBARSE. Know who’s got nothing better to do than be your buddy? ME.’ The hunters take their eyes off the trots and watch us, grinning. ‘THE HELL YOU LOOKIN AT?’ I bark at the fatbellies. ‘WANT A TUB OF POPCORN WHILE YOU WATCH?’

I slam a twenty on the bar, buy our sixth beers and we repeat the cycle.  

We’ve finished Game 7 and Pop’s got four wins against my three. If he takes the next one, he’ll have five wins out of eight. Victory to him.

I need to double down.

The old man’s trying to rack the balls one-handed, bitching about his arm being numb and tingly. I give him some of his own medicine, bumping him aside, racking the balls perfectly, snatching my cue, doing a break so crisp that it sends two balls of each colour into pockets. Bugger me. I’ve never seen four balls go down off a break.

‘There ya go,’ I tell Pop, pushing his cue into his cold clammy palms, ‘Set you up to win.’

Except Pop doesn’t win. It’s that gammy hand of his, he’s carrying his left arm in an invisible sling. I beat him by a margin of three balls. Pop pretends he hasn’t even noticed, hunched over his cellphone. ‘Ere – he’s done it again, he has! That brother of yours: shortlisted for the London Business Awards. I get Google News on the old telling-bone, I do.’

I ignore him and we concentrate on our game for ten silent minutes.

I lead by one ball; Pop follows but never catches up.

The eighth game is mine.  

I have to blink a couple times til I believe it.

‘That’s four each. Still wanna play the final?’

‘I do.’

‘Like a literal, no-goin-back all-time decider?

‘I believe I’ve responded.’

‘Pop, I’m serious, man. If I win this, you gotta shut up about how one dude losing isn’t the same as the other winning, alright, cause I know you’re tryina say that’s me, like I’m the loser out of the three kids and WHOA WHOA, UB UB UB UB UB, shutcha mouth, before you try say it’s just that Timmo and Jasmine are winners: I know what you’re sayin. Okay? So just… .’

Pop is racking the balls, but real slow. He seems worn out.   

There’s fifteen balls that go in a pool triangle. To rack em truly perfect, Pop puts the One at the very top, then the Two beside the Three. He sets them up so the stripes and solids alternate, with the black eight ball in the heart of the triangle. He tries to put it in position and almost can’t, what with his left arm failing on him.  

The bar lady dings a little bell, calls last orders. The entire pool hall is black now apart from a circle of yolk-coloured light around our table.

This is it. Final game. The decider. Ninth of nine.

Pop is on smalls, solids, lows. Whatever you want to call them, they’re going down well, considering his fingers are sweaty and Pop is dizzy and he’s resting his top half on the table.

The camouflage hunters have given up pretending to watch the horses. Now they’re concentrating on our game. Light in the blackness. One of them winks at me. His mate winks at Pop.  

Pop begins the end. He puts down numbers 5 and 7 pretty quick, then it takes him ages to sink another. I’m being a bit wankery, nudging some of mine in front of his, tactical manoeuvres to stress him out. I’m sinking as I do, though, and most of my seven are down pretty quick, leaving me dealing with a table that’s like a minefield. If I don’t wanna get penalised for fouls, I need to get around the enemy balls without scraping them.

The camos get tired and waddle out of the bar and get into their trucks. Bon Jovi is singing one minute, next it’s silence.

The pool hall is by now empty. A caretaker is hunched over a vacuum cleaner, scraping the carpet. What time is it – closing time? Jesus.

With one ball to sink and five in my way, I’m forced to do a jump shot. The old man clutches his face like he’s just seen me step on wet cement. He’s pretending to puke and threatening to call the barmaid when my ball rolls to the edge of the hole, slows to a standstill, then plops silently into its slot. Pops gets down on his knees and crawls under the table, one hand holding his hairpiece.

‘Pops, man. What the… ?’

I hear a thin, strained voice. ‘You think you’ve…. Think you’ve… fooled… fooled me.’ His voice has had all the bass taken out of it and he breathes hard on either side of it.

I get down on the ground with him, crawl under the table, embarrassed as hell. There are old stiff French fries down here, a paper napkin, a historic drinking straw… and my old man. He’s rolled onto his back. Clutching his chest like a curled-up cockroach.

‘Pops, man, first you tell me I’m the leastest favourite, then you call me a cheater. I’ve had a gutsful. I’m walking.’

I crawl out. Brush the cob webs off my knees. Grab my jacket and my smokes.

Pops isn’t calling after me.

Okay, old man. Act silent, then.

I step over big chunks of the carpet. I’m almost out the door, I’m squeezing the pipe in my pocket, I’m getting near to the parking lot, there’s a bus station beyond, except it feels like I’m stepping through quicksand, time’s slowing down and my legs turn around before my brain does.

It’s pretty obvious the old man’s having a heart attack back there, and he’ll need me to hold his hand in the back of the ambo, cause I’m the only sucker that’ll stick around to see who’s the best of three.

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