I saw nothing, heard nothing, but had an inkling someone had entered the room. The comfort of alone had gotten replaced by something else and it felt like a small shove. For thirty minutes or so I continued reading the morning's newspaper while digesting none of it. Finally, I took the wooden ruler from my jacket pocket and commenced pushing out the wrinkles so I could properly return the newspaper to the circulation desk. I used the long meticulous strokes I had been taught as a boy.
"Used to be a sign of good breeding. Now no one does that anymore."
I hadn't heard that voice in almost seven years, and then it was so weakened as to be barely recognizable. It was a whisper those last few days.
"I had a good breeder, you see."
I worked the ruler slower across the pages, adding a hint of flourish to the edge of each page. I could crisp a newspaper with my eyes closed. The paper would look unread when I was done with it. It would look better than new.
"Yes," he said. "it's obvious. But it's also obvious you were an attentive student."
"Why aren't you dead?" I asked. "You're dead. I saw it myself — the light went out. All those years before the cancer you could've talked to me and now that you're dead you've got something to say?"
Nobody likes a talking to, so he didn't answer. And then he wasn't there and I was back to being alone. A great tension built in my person during that short exchange and I thought of myself as stiff and wrinkled. I wished someone would take a great ruler to me.
The old man always made me nervous, even when he was being swell. I never trusted his disposition to last, always anticipated the reversal to come. He was my first exposure to the idea of a zero sum game: every high to produce a corresponding low. So when the reversal came it would fully balance the books, if not a little extra.
"You used to say that all the time, and I didn't know what it meant. All the damn time."
"What did I say?"
"Sonny boy, you'll get everything you've got coming to you, and maybe a little extra."
"You still don't know what it means?"
"No, I get it now. It's a stupid thing to say to a boy. Stupid."
"You're not a boy now. Why are you still worried about a stupid thing said a long time ago?"
"Because stupid sticks, see? It doesn't get forgotten so easily. It sticks for goddamn ever."
He didn't answer. I didn't want an answer and I didn't need an answer because there is no answer. Or there is no right question. Men train boys how they train them, they're stupid about it, and that's that.
I finished pressing the newspaper, folded it in half and took it to the circulation desk. The attendant was away from his post and the red button on his phone blinked silently. I was curious and thought to answer the phone, "Hello? Who's there?" But I knew that would be wrong and might possibly violate my membership agreement. This is an old establishment and everything has always been done a particular way. The attendant likely had a member on hold and was away searching the shelves for a book or periodical. Membership requires exactly that sort of service.
"You should answer the phone if you're so curious."
"I'm not that curious."
"You've always needed to know everything about everything instead of just taking things how they're given to you. When's the last time someone gave you something and you responded with "thank you" instead of another question? Can you name even one time, I don't care how far back?"
"I can name plenty."
"Name one. I'll give you a nickel for the soda machine if you can."
"Soda doesn't cost a nickel any longer. You should know that. Besides, you always said it's bad for my teeth."
"Was I wrong?"
"No. But a soda now and then never killed anybody or made their teeth fall out."
"You still haven't told me one yet."
I couldn't breathe. My mouth was pried wide open and my lungs were heaving but I couldn't grasp air. A crowd of faces stood looking at me when my eyes opened and I tried to ask them for air. To plead with them, but I couldn't move my mouth to make words. They looked right at me and smiled. Again I tried shouting, coughing, but nothing came.
"Why won't they give me air? Do you know?"
"They are giving you air. You're just being greedy, wanting more than you need."
"I can't breathe. I'll die without more air. I know it."
"You still haven't told me about the one time you just said "thank you."
It rained heavily that spring, every other day at least. Those days the rain always reminded me of the jungle even though this rain was nothing like over there. At that time I hadn't yet learned to separate experiences from each other, so I spent most every waking minute at the pool hall. The room was big and spacious and built into the ground under a carpet store. Everyone smoked cigarettes and I found comfort in the tobacco haze. The owner gave me free table time and for hours I hit ball after ball in the far corner. Everyone let me be and I didn't notice where the days went.
"Why? What have I to be grateful for?"
"You weren't there. You wouldn't say that if you were."
"You forget, Sonny boy, I was on the beach. And still I say it, everything."
"I'm not grateful for any of it. And I don't have to be. Why aren't you dead?"
She was half Puerto Rican I think. Maybe only a quarter, or less. She was the only girl that came alone into the pool hall to play. She wanted to be good, she said, to play like a man. I saw her a few times by the vending machines, exchanged a word here and there while waiting for my coffee to finish dripping. One day she asked to play a game. I said no, I don't play games, I only hit balls. She asked if it was true I played for free. I said no, it wasn't true. She said she'd pay for the table time, she just wanted a game. I said no, but thank you.
A week later she came to the table while I was hitting balls. Please, let me play a game? Go away, girl. I'm broke, she said, and I need to play. I have to, can't you understand? I've nothing else and time is ticking away. Every day feels more and more like I'm losing. I have to play. I have to do this. Her face scrunched like one might when processing severe physical pain, but she was only fighting back the urge to cry. I couldn't look at her. Sonny, is this it? I'm dead? No, Pete, shut up. Breathe buddy and hold on. Hold on. Just hold on.
"I taught that girl to play pool."
"That was over forty years ago. Nothing more recently, huh?"
"You didn't request chronological order. I win."
"You also ruined that girl. Made a big mess of things for her."
"That's not true. You weren't there, how would you know? At the time, you couldn't have been any more disinterested. Now you're the expert?"
"I've read up on it. It's all here, in the newspaper. Starts on page 22a, mid page. See for yourself."
I looked for the newspaper but my eyes were watering profusely, creating a heavy mist. It was like being underwater, every view distorted or out of reach. Yes, underwater and drowning, unable to get air. I remembered I couldn't breathe and felt my lungs and throat gasping. My tongue was trying to move to help my mouth form words but it was fastened into place by the tube running down my throat. I tried biting through the tube. I had to get free from it, but my jaw was also constrained. Tears ran down my face in a continuous stream. The people gathered above me moved around a little but it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. What do they want?
"Would you like me to read the article to you? There was a time you liked being read to. Very much, in fact. You'd make quite the fuss if you didn't get your bedtime story. Remember?"
I did remember but I didn't want to. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of remembering and I didn't want to acknowledge the good existed because then I'd have to remember the bad. It would all come out then. Wash over me a like a torrent and I'd never get dry again.
"No. I don't want to hear it."
"Why don't I read you something else then? Here's a lovely obit, for instance. Very well done."
Why won't those people give me some air? Maybe if I can sit up. Then I can reach out a hand to one. They'll see I'm struggling. They'll see. Where's the doctor? I look for a white coat but see only a pale shifting blur.
"Evelina Margorie Santana, known in various billiard parlors across America and on the professional pocket pool circuit as "Ever-Thunder Evey," for her ability to strike a cue ball with an unprecedented amount of power for a member of the fairer sex, was pronounced dead on March 15 at Genesee County Hospital. The cause of death was a gunshot to the head."
Sonny! Something forced me down. The ground was wet and loose and yet it shook like a firm thing and the sky was so loud. Too loud. I pushed on Mandes, tried to get him back together. He leaked between my fingers and it was warm enough to feel good. I needed to move him, get him out of here. I owed Mandes at least that much. I needed … Damn it, boy, stay down! You hear me?
"She had two days earlier celebrated her 32nd birthday."
They won't ever give me air. That's what this all must mean.