Selected Short Stories
Excerpted from Selected Short Stories by Jay Waitkus
The Cue Room
"EIGHT in the corner,” Lefty Sharpe declared. He set for his shot quickly. People often marveled at how quickly Lefty pulled the trigger. It was almost like he didn’t need to aim. The cue ball fired off his stick and smacked the eight ball crisply. The eight ball rolled along the smooth blue felt, caught the corner pocket at the lip of the guard rail, and rattled in. The Cue Room erupted.
“Did it again!” Trey Spenser laughed, as the onlookers cheered. Lefty’s opponent was only one in a long line of patsies he came across every night. There were few people who could give Lefty a decent game, fewer who could beat him, and none who could do it consistently. The patsy stood there for a moment, clearly a little humiliated. He plucked down fifty dollars on the table and walked away.
“I need a break,” Lefty said, handing the rack to his longtime friend, Orlando Wallace.
“Ducking me again, eh?” Orlando laughed.
“Whatever,” Lefty replied with a smile.
Orlando and Lefty were the most evenly matched regulars in the Cue Room. They had played each other thousands of times over the years. Lefty had maintained a slight edge, but not enough to truly claim superiority. It didn’t matter. There were more than enough stiffs to go around.
Trey was behind the bar making conversation with everyone, laughing and pouring drinks. It was Friday, just after midnight, and the Cue Room was in its glory. The crowd was a typically rough one, with various factions gathered at the tables. On any given night, eight or ten dangerous men in fine suits would claim a corner of the building. Construction workers, truckers, and other working men would claim another. Small assemblages of bikers milled around and drank and shot pool. Then there were the professional gamblers like Lefty and Orlando, oblivious to all but the next game. Occasionally someone younger stumbled in, usually looking very out of place — and usually leaving soon after. There were also a number of women, some hard-looking and jaded, some softer and dressed to the nines, some there only to drink and gamble but most looking for attention.
The Cue Room, as always, was tinged in haze. Years of cigar and cigarette smoke had settled into the walls, the ceiling, and the furnishings. The reflection of smoke off the large lights which hovered above the pool tables created a murky gleam that Trey half-seriously referred to as the building’s “charm.”
Lefty sat at the bar drinking scotch. Within twenty minutes, Orlando polished off a row of opponents.
“Come on, Lefty!” he yelled above the noisy crowd. “I’m getting bored. Let’s shoot.”
“How much did you win?” Lefty asked, as he made his way to the table.
“A couple hundred.”
“Want to give it me now?”
“Then why did you call me over?”
“Must be going deaf in my old age.”
“You are old. But you heard me.”
Back and forth went the banter and the games for the rest of the night. Both players were blurry-eyed by the time they were done.
“Even again?” Trey asked, as his friends converged on the bar.
“Basically,” Orlando replied.
“I won,” Lefty said.
“Twenty lousy bucks in three hours of work. And you owed me from yesterday.”
“Yeah, well, enough for tonight. I’m going home.”
“Already? How about that, Trey? Looks like I found a fresh patsy.”
Trey laughed, but for an instant Orlando turned serious.
“Your rack,” Orlando said. “That last comment’s gonna cost you.”
“DO you want to know what your problem is?” Del Regan asked, as he set up for a shot at the eight ball. “Your problem is that you take things way too seriously.”
“Thanks for the insight,” James Watley responded, watching the cue ball miss its target.
“No, I mean it. You’re making way too much out of all this.”
James went over to the table to shoot. He was more than a little annoyed at Del’s attitude.
“You don’t just forget a year of your life.”
“No, but there comes a point when you’ve got to face the facts. Like it or not, it’s been weeks since it ended. Sharon’s moved on. It’s time you did the same.”
“What would you suggest I do?”
“Another girl might be a start.”
“It’s too soon.”
“Bull! When a relationship ends, you find another frail and get back in the saddle. So to speak.”
“Del, do you ever wonder why all of your relationships end within a month?”
“Because I get bored and move on. Like I said, you take things way too seriously.”
James aimed his shot carefully, and sank the eight ball in the corner pocket.
“That’s game. Want to go again?”
For a moment, Del looked pensive.
“Actually, I have something else in mind. It might be just the thing you need.”
“A trip to Club Rendezvous.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Can I take that to mean you’ve never gone?”
“Of course not. I don’t go to places like that.”
“Then we have to go.”
“Because I don’t think it’s the kind of place that —”
“Oh Jesus, you’re not going to get all puritanical on me, are you? I was afraid this would happen when you applied to that snooty Bible college.”
“To study literature, not puritanism.”
“Then what’s the deal with you? What’s wrong with a little fun?”
“Because a place like that — I don’t know, it’s just not my kind of scene.”
“A place with beautiful women ‘isn’t your kind of scene?’ Would you listen to yourself? Christ, you’re in a bad way.”
James didn’t reply. At some level, he knew that Del, for all his crudeness, was right. It was over with Sharon. It was time to move on.
“Okay,” he finally said, with an exasperated sigh.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”
“Now you’re talking,” Del exclaimed. “Come on, I’ll drive.”
The trip from the pool hall to the club took only fifteen minutes. Del pulled into the parking lot, and he and James got out. James looked up at the decaying marquee over the building. The structure looked small, and was more than a bit run down.
“Not many cars here.”
“It’s the middle of the day,” Del said. “The place doesn’t really come alive until after dark. Since this is your indoctrination, though, we’ll start with baby steps.”
The young men walked over to the entranceway, where they were greeted by a sign: “No guns or knives allowed,” it stated.
“Nice,” said James. “You’d think they’d at least have someone out front to enforce it.”
“It’s on the honor system,” Del responded, with a laugh. “Come on, let’s go in.”
James let out another heavy sigh as he followed his friend through the door.
Inside, almost everything was murky. The only real source of light — which was hazy at best — emanated from the large stage that dominated the center of the cramped room. Looking down from the platform, a dancer cavorting to the driving beat of a heavy metal song was slowly removing her clothing while a contingent of middle-aged men sat transfixed at the surrounding tables.
A topless waitress approached James and Del as they took a seat in the back. If she was pretty it was too dark to tell
“What can I get you guys?” she asked.
“Two beers,” Del told her.
“You got it, baby,” she replied with a salacious smile.
For the next few minutes, Del and James watched as the dancer finished her number. Del was obviously enjoying it, but the attraction was lost on James. Was he that far gone over Sharon? Or was the dancer, who was slightly overweight, and had a face that had been hardened by God knows what, really that unappealing? James thought about it, and decided it was the latter. The woman, while mesmerizing to the drunken group of men up front, was completely unworthy of the response that Del was giving her.
When the song was over, the dancer left to scattered applause, and the greasy-haired disc jockey who had created the racket announced he was taking a break. He abandoned his podium to the left of the stage and walked toward the back of the building. As he moved, a faint trail of slime seemed to ooze out in his wake.
“Here you go, boys,” the waitress said, as she brought the beers over to the table.
“Thanks,” James replied, suddenly realizing it was the first word he had spoken since entering the club.
Again the waitress smiled.
“If you want a private dance, it’s that way,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing to a door off to the side.
Del looked at her with a condescending grin.
“How much is it?” he asked.
“Actually, we’re fine,” James interjected.
“If you change your mind —”
“We’ll let you know.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Del said when the waitress had gone.
“What happened to baby steps?” James asked, and Del laughed sarcastically.
Ten minutes passed, and the young men sat and drank. Then the slimy disc jockey returned to his post, announcing the name of the next performer. The audio system was garbled, though, and no-one understood what he said. In the end, James decided, it didn’t matter anyway. The woman took the stage, and another pulsing song blared over the loudspeaker.
For more than an hour, the scene repeated itself. Try as he might, James couldn’t see things the same way Del did. All he saw was ugliness — in the club, in the women, and in life. By the fifth performance, he was losing his patience, but it was clear that Del wasn’t leaving. Another song exploded through the sound system, to the delight of the patrons up front.
“This is great, isn’t it?” Del exclaimed, raising his voice so it could be heard above the din.
“Yeah, great,” James responded.
His tone was sarcastic, but his friend seemed not to notice. Like the middle-aged drunks, Del’s attention had turned back to the stage, his eyes squarely focused on yet another dancer whose stomach was too soft, and whose face was much too hard.
The Boys of Solemnity
IT was Tuesday, and the student center at Millington College wasn’t very busy. Nearly all the undergraduates had gone off to the school’s required chapel service. James Watley and Brian Stewart had come to the conclusion that the day’s guest speaker wasn’t worth hearing, though — the guest speakers seldom were — and decided that the threat of a reprimand was far less daunting than sitting through yet another endless sermon. Chances were fifty-fifty they would be discovered missing. It was worth it.
The doors to the building had been left open, but the student center was shut down. No-one was at the front desk. The video games were turned off. The pool tables remained covered, the cue sticks locked away in a storage room. The only things that worked were the vending machines. The last few stragglers left, and the two boys were soon sitting across from one another in a booth, downing cans of soda pop, chocolate bars, and chips.
“This is truly pathetic,” James grumbled.
“I’m so fed up with chapel. It’s nothing but a bore, a complete waste of time.”
“Some people like the services, Jimmy. They need them.”
“Do you like them, Brian?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Exactly. I’m not suggesting stopping them, but why do they have to be a requirement?”
“Because a lot of people wouldn’t go if they weren’t.”
“I rest my case. You’d think the college could at least keep the student center running, so we could shoot some pool.”
“We’re lucky we can even get in here,” Brian said. “I was here with Charley and Jason last night, and it closed at nine. I thought you were going to meet us.”
“Forgot I had a quiz in Apologetics to study for. I tried to call you, but you were already gone. It closed at nine?”
“There was only one girl at the front desk. The guy that was supposed to work until midnight never showed. And you know the rules about girls working by themselves at night. She had to shut it down.”
“Some coeducation. If the people who run this school are so worried about the girls being left unprotected, why not just allow open dorms?”
“Because if they did, they’d have to provide another kind of protection.”
“They think their code of conduct will keep everyone chaste, but they’re crazy. Anyone can get around it.”
“They sure do love their rules around here.”
“I hate rules.”
“You need some. It keeps you honest.”
“Last I looked, I was old enough to vote. Around here, I don’t even get a vote about my own social life.”
“What do you care about open dorms? I thought you were convinced Marissa was your soulmate. You’d never cheat on her, would you?”
“You can’t cheat on what you don’t have. I think I should move on.”
“I thought you were in love with her.”
“I am. But it won’t work.”
“She wants someone else.”
“That guy from out West?”
“He’s thousands of miles away.”
“That’s what I tell her. Repeatedly. She really loves him, I guess.”
“It’s not like you to give up.”
“It’s not like me to spend so much time chasing after one girl, either.”
“She’s too good for you, anyway,” Brian joked.
“Don’t I know it. I wonder how the sermon’s going.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I must be more bored than I thought.”
“We could go over.”
“I’m not that bored. It all just closes in on me sometimes, you know?”
“All of it. I always thought college was the place you were supposed to go to figure out your life.”
“It doesn’t feel that way. It’s oppressive here, Brian.”
“I feel that way too sometimes.”
“What do you do about it?”
“I ignore it.”
“It gets me through the day. You know what your problem is, Jimmy?”
“Usually, you act like you don’t care about anything. But the truth is you care too much.”
“Care too much about what?”
“About everything. You obsess about it.”
“Tell me more, Dr. Freud.”
“If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t still be here.”
“I’m here because I’ve been bounced from every other college I’ve attended.”
“But you’re still here.”
“So far still counts.”
“OK, there’s things here I care about.”
“Like your faith,” Brian laughed.
“Yeah, that’s me. Christian of the year.”
“But you get mad when they say you’re not one.”
“Maybe I’m just a hypocrite.”
“All-right, I care about my faith. So do you.”
“Yeah, but I don’t try to hide it.”
“Yeah you do.”
“Not as much as you.”
“Okay, so we’re both hypocrites. And Marissa — you care about her.”
“It always just comes out wrong. Do you know what the real problem is around here?”
“Lots of people care, but they’re even worse than us. At least we let go a little. Or pretend to, if nothing else.”
“They’re good people, though.”
“Oh, I agree. Better than at the state school, that’s for sure.”
“But a little naive.”
“And wrapped a little too tight.”
“Way too tight.”
“All under penalty of damnation.”
“Or worse, expulsion. It’s all just dead here. They’re all so busy trying to live up to their ideals, they forget what it means to just be human. To be normal.”
“They’re not legalistic.”
“Just ask them. What are these people going to do when they get out of here? The world’s going to destroy them.”
“They probably think it’ll make their faith stronger,” Brian said.
“I wouldn’t call their kind of faith ‘strong’ to start with.”
“Well, it isn’t.”
“I’m just frustrated.”
“Can’t be avoided forever.”
Working the Line at the Union Local
ENOUGH was enough. Larson was a drunk and his workers were tired of protecting him. His mistakes running the line were costing the factory time and money. People were worried about their jobs. Someone had to speak to management, and the workers convinced Joe Griffin. Griffin had worked the line twenty years. Everyone in the union respected him, but management despised him. Sometimes he wondered what it had more to do with — the color of his skin or his willingness to speak his mind.
The plant manager was a man named Edwards. His office was attached to a storage room. Griffin went to see him. The door was open and Griffin stood there. Edwards was sitting at his desk writing invoices.
“Can I help you, Griffin?” Edwards asked.
“I need to talk to you, sir. It’s about Mr. Larson. There’s no good way to say this. He’s been drinking on the job. We’ve all seen him. Production’s slowing down. We’ve fallen way —”
“I know, Griffin. Production’s been falling for months.”
“Well, I think Mr. Larson’s situation may have had something to do with —”
“I can talk to him,” Edwards said.
“Just the other day he stopped the line in the middle of a shift for —”
“Is there anything else?” Edwards asked.
"Sir, with all due respect, I was trying to tell you —”
“Production’s down, the men are blaming the supervisor.”
“He’s a drunk, sir.”
“It’s clear there’s been a disagreement.”
“But Mr. Larson is —”
“Efficient,” Edwards said.
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
“He’s a drunk, sir.”
“I can’t do anything about the matter. I can talk to him. That’s all.”
“Are you saying you have no authority to —”
“Did I say I have no authority?” Edwards asked. “Did I say I have no authority? Are you going to tell people that’s what I said?”
“I wasn’t trying to —”
“I’ll talk to Larson. Problem solved. Anything else?”
“No,” said Griffin.
Days passed, then weeks, then months. Larson kept his job, and kept drinking, too. When Edwards retired, Larson was promoted to plant manager. Layoffs followed, and the workers went on strike. A year went by and nothing got settled and Larson died drunk and the factory closed.
Original publication date: 4/17/2010
Reissue date: 5/12/2020
Publisher: Elizabeth River Press
Cover image: NZ Graphics