THE PROTOCOL OF DEATH IN A POOL HALL - ROBERT CAPORALE
“Bronco’s Billiard Academy” blinks in blue neon from a second floor window of the Worthy Hotel Building. The sign has been there since neon was invented and never stops blinking. Bronco’s is open 24/7, even on Christmas.
Bronco’s is a microcosm...a collection of every kind of proton and neutron known to man...it’s all there for the taking.
There is street poetry in Bronco’s.
The manager is a woman. Her name is Missy. Missy started out as Bronco’s cocktail waitress, serving up drinks in the “Bank Shot Lounge.” She became Bronco’s mistress and was quickly promoted to ball girl and placed behind the counter where she pretty much ran all the day-to-day activities for decades. When Bronco retired to Florida last year, he put Missy in charge.
In Missy’s day, she was something to look at…for real. There are black and white photographs of her hanging on the wall of the “Bank Shot Lounge.” She is staring into the camera with these Greta Garbo spitfire eyes in the company of gangsters.
Eddie has the shoeshine concession in Bronco’s; had it since day one. Two oak chairs with curved backs and thick leather seats up on a pedestal. He’s shined some famous shoes in his day, including the rum runner Joe Kennedy, who told him one day his son would be president of the United States, and Minnesota Fats, who gave him a twenty dollar tip.
Eddie still talks about that generous tip.
Bronco surf-fishes the day away down in Largo now, but he misses the action of the city and the pool hall and the guttersnipes.
Word on the street has Chickenman in town peddling his poultry, and that means it won’t be long before he’s in Bronco’s, shooting nine ball.
Chickenman rolls into town once every three or four months driving a flatbed truck stacked high with wooden cages full of chickens...hundreds upon hundreds of the filthy clucking birds on their way to be deep-fried at KFC or Kenny Rogers’.
An old gentleman named Forbes is part of a foursome that plays billiards in Bronco’s every day at noon like clockwork orange; a tradition that goes back some thirty years. Forbes is a master tailor and owns a highly-regarded Haberdashery down on Bayside Boulevard. The four old-timers are all professional men...one is a stogie-smoking doctor they call “MD.”
Chickenman swings the flatbed around on Avocado Street and backs his feather-flying rig up to the loading docks of the Poultry Exchange. Teamsters unload his chickens. As Chickenman waits for his check to be cut, he watches the young receptionist fold and unfold her legs a half-dozen times, hoping to catch a glimpse of panties. From Avocado, he goes to the bank and cashes his check. From the bank, he stops by the Farmers Council Building on South Main to bitch about government subsidies; then to the White Castle for a double cheeseburger to go.
With the white White Castle bag in hand and a shit-eating grin on his lined, weathered face, he walks the two blocks to Bronco’s Billiard Academy.
Forbes carries a Thermos-brand thermos to the Haberdashery with him every morning. It’s an antique. The stainless steel thermos has rings around it and a real cork stopper. It is not the original cork; it’s a replacement he sent away for to Akron, Ohio. Forbes brings the thermos with him to the pool hall every noon. He unscrews the silver cup and pops the cork and pours out steaming black coffee. All of his gestures are performed in an elegant fashion without any false affectations. Forbes loves that thermos. To him, it represents an honest day’s work and a job well done. He relishes these quiet moments sipping on hot coffee from the thermos and inhaling smoke from a Camel cigarette.
Chickenman pushes open the street level door to Bronco’s and heels across the glistening black and white tile floor. He double-steps up the flight of scalloped-smooth marble stairs anticipating the interior of the pool hall. Even before he steps into Bronco’s, he pictures the stately rows of mahogany tables covered in green felt, each with a ruby stained-glass chandelier illuminating it. Between the manqué de queue of burger pool hall and nine ball, Chickenman can barely stand the rush. He literally dreams of playing nine ball in Bronco’s and making these incredible shots under the ruby light. He never dreams of shoveling chicken shit...ever.
The gentleman Forbes sips hot coffee all while leaning on his cue stick contemplating his next shot. After a moment, he swallows the last of the coffee, balances the silver cup on the arm of a chair and leans across the table and starts stroking his cue stick, calculating just where to hit the cue ball to get enough high left-hand english on it when something inside of him just gives out. The gentleman Forbes casually places his cue stick on the felt and slithers down the billiard table to the floor...pretty much the same way he lived his life: peacefully and without fanfare.
“MD” examines Forbes...he cannot find a pulse or a heartbeat. He checks again. He takes a big pull off his White Owl, blows out the smoke and says, our old friend Forbes is deader than a doornail.
Missy calmly phones the police. A man is dead, she tells the dispatcher, natural causes, no rush.
Not the first time Missy has made the dead man call.
A few moments later, Chickenman bursts through the heavy swinging doors and steps up onto one of Eddie’s oak leather chairs and places his cowboy boots in the footrest and opens the White Castle bag and sticks his face in and takes a deep breath. The aroma of flamed broiled beef and sweet onion pass through his sinuses and singe his brain like acid. The opiate scent will stick to his sinus membranes for days to come. Eddie starts rubbing polish into Chickenman’s cowboy boots. Chickenman never notices poor old Forbes half under the billiard table. Eddie never mentions Mister Forbes to Chickenman; he just minds his own business and starts slapping out a funky Motown beat on the boots with a buffing rag. Chickenman slides the burger out of the bag with pageantry and dirty fingernails. After three months of mostly chicken pot pie, chicken soup, chicken salad and chicken fricassee, Chickenman savors the unwrapping of the flame-broiled burger.
MD and the other gentlemen are patiently waiting for the ambulance to arrive and remove their dear old dead friend Forbes so they may resume their billiard match. Time is of the essence. They keep checking the big Seagram’s neon clock on the wall and start pacing as they all have things to do places to go and people to meet. Pretty soon, they huddle up. It looks like they are praying but, in fact, they are debating the protocol of death in a pool hall. After a moment of whispers and quiet introspection, MD says, it is what it is, and they continue their billiard match knowing that if roles were reversed and it was one of them stretched out...Forbes would do the exact same thing.
Chickenman delicately peels back the white wrapping paper, revealing a plump moist bun with ketchup, mustard and mayo squeezing out of the sides. He peeks under the bun at the charbroiled paddy, making sure the pickles and onions are where they’re supposed to be and the cheese is in the proper melting mode before drawing the burger to his mouth like communion. His eyes roll back in his head as the virgin juices of red meat and condiments blend and slide down his throat and drip off his chin.
The three gentlemen are stepping around and over their dear old dead friend Forbes, trying not to add insult to injury by tripping over him. Considering the circumstances of their twisted and contorted positions, they’re still making some splendid three and four bank billiard shots.
One of the gentleman points out that Forbes’ wingtips have just recently been re-soled and heeled.
What a waste of good Italian leather, MD says.
The whole scenario is turning dark and ominous.
Outside, there is a fine warm mist falling as an ambulance and police cruiser siren up to the curb by the entrance of Bronco’s. Their flashing lights glisten on the wet blacktop.
Hearing the siren, the three gentleman pick up the pace of their match.
The Redmond Brothers follow the gurney up the stairs and into Bronco’s. They are mildly curious about who got their head split with a pool cue when they spot Chickenman wiping burger juice off his chin with his sleeve.
The police have a few perfunctory questions to ask witnesses before they close their little pads and leave the medics to their work.
The medics cover The Gentleman Forbes with an antiseptic white sheet and roll him towards the door with his newly-soled wingtips poking out of the sheet.
The three gentlemen glance up at the Seagram clock and slip their sportcoats over their Brooks Brothers shirts and line up single file behind the gurney and follow it out the door. But not before MD surreptitiously snags poor old dead Forbes’ beloved Thermos brand thermos and quickly corks it and screws the silver cup on and awkwardly hides it under his blue blazer with the Forbes Haberdashery label French-stitched onto the gold silk lining.
MD has always had designs on Forbes’ Thermos brand thermos.
Chickenman catches a glimpse of the gurney just as it rolls out the door with MD and the boys parading behind with heads bowed New Orleans style.
What happened? Chickenman asks.
Man died, Eddie tells him. A billiard player.
Just like that, Eddie snaps his fingers, like turning off a light switch. Eddie shakes his head in disbelief.
Chickenman checks out the new shine on his cowboy boots. Nice job, he tells Eddie, and drops an extra dollar into Eddie’s tip jar.
The Redmond Brothers swoop down on Chickenman like a couple of strung-out junkies on a get-well fix. The stakes are set at ten on the five and twenty on the nine.
Who’s hustling who is still up for grabs.
Chickenman wins the lag for the break. He places the cue ball and studies the line. He moves the cue ball a quarter inch to the left, studies it some more, then moves it back again. He chalks his stick, checks the tightness of the rack, powders his hands and firmly sets his feet on the floor. Chickenman leans over and starts stroking his cue stick until everything peripheral gets fuzzy, leaving him in a state of pure dead quiet and shrinking reality until he enters the zone and his universe consists of just three feet of green felt and an celestial Ivory ball.
A crowd gathers as Chickenman slams the cue ball like a battering ram into the diamond shaped configuration of pool balls turning them into a frenzy of pretty colors flying in all different directions. Everyone in Bronco’s holds their breath as they track the yellow and white nine ball rolling ever-so-slowly through harm’s way towards the corner pocket.
The nine ball drops.
The place goes wild.
Chickenman anticipates being bolted awake in a cold sweat and pounding heart from another nine ball dream.
BIO: Robert Caporale’s most recent publications can be seen in Wildcat, The Café Irreal, Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly, The Lummox Journal, Confrontation, and The Avatar Review. He is finishing up a short story collection and thinking about a novel. He takes MFA workshops at the University of Massachusetts.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
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