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The Stony Lonesome: Money Ball

On the violence spectrum — being a propensity for, attraction to, or likelihood of erupting in same — 0 being Gandhi-like peacefulness and 6 being raging, bloodthirsty berserker — I would say I clock in at around 1.1, in large part, do not wish nor wish to visit harm upon my fellow man, and believe strongly that everyone has the right and expectation to go about their daily biz whole and unmolested. Which is not to say that if you take a crack at my cheek I'm going to humbly offer the other in the interests of balance and symmetry, crucial though I consider those things. I can be pushed, and it's not all sunny sheep-meadows and sweetshops up in here (my head). But again, on the whole I prefer we all just get along.

It wasn't always such. There was a time in my life when I considered a night out sadly incomplete without an incident of fisticuffs. Into every fray I gleefully and carelessly leapt at every opportunity, seizing on the flimsiest of premises to justify swinging on someone. I was happiest when I was able to spark a group melee and considered them the multimedia mural of the art of pugilism. I took some lumps, naturally, but what I lacked in size, strength, and ability I made up for with enthusiasm, verve, and a large complement of friends, and I went without serious injury right up until the time I was viciously slashed and very nearly removed from the census rolls. This is not about that terrible night; I still find it difficult to revisit and it's doubtful I could extract any humor from it if I did. One valuable lesson I learned, though, is that participants in these incidents of spontaneous social violence are not always on the same page regarding the severity and seriousness of the situation. One person may enter into it in the spirit of convivial Irish-style let's-beat-the-hell-out-of-each-other-and-then-drink-together-donnybrooking, while the other is all wrapped up in fear and honor and win-at-any-cost-even-if-you-have-to-kill-someone. You just never know when you're going to encounter someone packing a knife or gun who doesn't find rolling around in the mud and the blood and the beer 'til someone hollers 'nuff an enjoyable way to spend an evening, and that is good enough reason to lay those kind of shenanigans aside.

There are any number of catalytic factors which can spark a rumpus, among them alcohol, darkness, jealousy, sexual competition, games of skill or chance, and spilling drinks on people: all part of the bar experience. Ergo, one might reasonably surmise that a good way to avoid getting in fights is to stay out of bars. That is where they keep the booze, though, and for some that's a pretty strong pull. I find that visiting drinking establishments in the daytime is a much safer and friendlier proposition. You're less likely to find Joe Sixpack in there trying to burn off some working-class rage and more apt to meet either those grimly serious alcoholics who are there on a mission of maintenance and can't be distracted by that kind of foolishness, the recently fired who are too depressed to fight, or normal folks indulging a sense of adventure and trying day-drinking for the first time. This latter group is always fun to encounter as you can usually get them to spend money on drugs, too.

In the waning days of the Bush II administration, I was keeping company with a lovely young grisette named Hilary, occupying a surprisingly urban (for Ukiah) apartment on Smith Street, next to the Palace Hotel. Situated as it was above a pawnshop and across from a tavern and Chinese restaurant, it's hard to imagine a more advantageous location, and if it weren't for the occasional trips to Talmage or Waugh Lane to score, there'd be no reason to leave the block. There was often, however, a reason to leave the apartment, as when Hil was entertaining the odd gentleman caller (Part-time hookers, or, as the French would more classily term them, grisettes, operate exclusively in the daytime. Paying for sex during working hours, I think you'll agree, substantially mitigates much of the seaminess, for both parties), and during these interludes I would sometimes find myself quaffing a few at the Forest Club.

One afternoon I was doing just that, enjoying a Sierra Nevada at the bar with a middle-aged woman who may have been the mother of the young barmaid, judging from their slightly caustic familiarity with one another, and a burly young Carhartt-clad construction-worker type.

The bartender offered a drink to the woman and said, "Here, try this." She took a sip, then another, longer one, and said, "Mmm, yummy. What's in it?"

"Can't tell you, it's proprietary. This one's gonna get me rich."

"Lemme try it," said the young man. "I got a sixth sense about these things."

"Actually, I think that's just one of the standard five," I said.

"What are you, a smartass?" he returned, a question I chose to regard as rhetorical. "Tastes kinda fruity," he said after sampling the drink. "I'll stick to whisky." Sixth sense indeed.

The conversation vacillated between gentle sniping between the women and the occasional boorish non-sequitur from the young man, so I took my beer over to the pool table and prepared to dispatch a rack. I like shooting pool, and I'm good at it, but I try to avoid getting involved in barroom games as they are often a flashpoint for violent confrontation, especially when one is a cocky, hypercompetitive smartass. I find it calming and satisfying to just pot balls by myself, figuring angles and experimenting without the stress of competition. I had drained about half the rack when the fellow from the bar strolled over, belching and flexing his fingers. "How about a game, buddy?" he said.

Ah, what the hell. "Sure, why not."

"Care to make it interesting?" he asked as he racked.

"What, you mean like naming the balls? That'd be interesting, sure as shit. Okay, I'll do solids, you do stripes, and we'll do a collabo on the 8."

He gave me a fishy look. "I'm talking about putting some money on it. Five bucks, whaddaya say?"

"Alright, one time. Lag for break"

He won the break and, putting his entire large body into it, spread the balls admirably, though nothing dropped. I sank 4 solids and left him in position to do some real damage. He studied the table carefully from several angles, sighted down his cue at a number of balls, pointed around the table as if mapping out his long-range strategy, and then stabbed ineffectually at an easy corner shot like a curious child poking a dead hobo with a stick.

"Nice try," I said, and finished him with four quick shots.

"Sum-BITCH", he said, pounding the butt-end of his cue into the floor. "One more, gimme a chance to get my money back."

I chose to take the smart option then, which was to let him win so as not to have an increasingly drunk and frustrated incompetent continue trying to recoup his losses until he realized that he could salvage his pride and assuage his resentment by switching to another, more primal and atavistic mode of competition, viz., pummeling me into jelly.

I deliberately shanked a few until he gained a 3-ball lead, I made one, and then scratched, but the duffer went ahead and made the 8 prior to sinking his object balls, giving me another W. "Man, tough break," I said.

"Shut up," he snapped. "Wait here, I'm'a go get some change." He stomped back over in his big Wesco boots. "This one's for 10."

I addressed the fresh rack at an angle and attitude which I knew would result in both maximum ball dispersal and the cue ball flying off the table, putting him at a distinct advantage. WHAM! The balls scattered explosively and the white one shot straight up in the air, then nicked the 8 as it dropped back down onto the felt, nudging it into a side pocket. My game again. "Is that even legal?" I asked. "That white one was up in the air for a while there."

"Oh, it's fuckin' legal. Twenty bucks."

I began crossing my eyes every time I shot, aiming between two ghostly images, and somehow still made balls. At the end of the game I was left at the 8 with a shot that was impossible to miss, unless I could contrive somehow to scratch. I put what I thought was some suicidal English on the ball but it only spun and caromed back to the center of the table in a show-offy manner. My opponent exhaled sharply through his nose and looked down on the ground.

"You hustlin' me, dude?"

I chuckled. "No, and please don't ask me if I know what you do to hustlers around here, I couldn't bear it. Look, why don't you just buy me a drink and we'll call it square?"

"No way, man, I pay my debts. One more game, sixty bones. You win, that's an even hundred. I win, you owe me twenty. Break."

Screw it, I thought. Let the chips fall where they may.

I broke, dropping one of each. I chose solids and sank 5 with laserlike precision before trapping myself behind a high ball. I looked at my opponent and he was glaring at me, red-faced and clenching his fists. Well, if you bare your ass to an angry bull, the number of possible outcomes dwindles pretty rapidly to just one. Feigning incompetence and then shooting like Bad Bad Leroy Brown wasn't helping out my not-a-hustler claim. I excused myself to go to the restroom and called Hilary. "Yo, babe. I'm across the street and need you to come over and defuse a situation."

"On it," she chirped.

Whatta gal. Two minutes later she walked through the door, all tumbling red curls and cheerful carnality in a pink tube top and Daisy Dukes. She tinkled her fingers at the barmaid. "Cosmo, please," she said, walking back to the pool table. My opponent turned to gawp and she walked right up to him, lifted her top right up to her clavicle and said, "Hey, cowboy, buy me a drink?"

He made a sort of strangly noise and I chose the moment for a judicious exit. Hilary came home a couple hours later, plopped down on the couch, and said, "That guy says you owe him $20 and he's gonna beat your ass next time he sees you. He probably needs it, 'cause I got all his money." She fanned herself with a sheaf of bills.

For the remainder of my time as consort to that charming young tartlet, I bided my time at the library while she brought home the bacon. After a few weeks I was supplanted by an aggressively pimpish Mexican with direct ties to the crystal pipeline and I went back to my reserve squeeze, the always welcoming but dangerously crazy Christine around the corner on Dora.

"Oh, it’s you," she said, stepping aside to let me in. "I'm glad you're here, the neighbors are trying to tunnel in under the floor."

It was good to be home.

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