Vol 1. Branded Souls, Chapter 3: A Drink, The Game

            “It is a surreal night.”

Hart took note. Some trees are still barren and the image of winter lingers, reminiscing to days of frost and penetrating wind; their shadows seemed like fingers following and stretching towards him. “Tonight is thankfully different.” He exhaled softly. “The air feels heavier with new warmth.” “It is without wind and soft…” He looked upwards at the moon and sky “…Soft and nostalgic.

He walked further down the road, continuing his musing. “What strange warmth accompanies me this evening!” He couldn’t keep a smile from his lips. The combination of good feeling and fair weather also carried the flavors of freshly blossomed trees and the savory aroma of pizza. Hart peered into the shop that sold it by the slice and imagined himself with a hot and greasy one. Excited, he checked his pockets but frowned when he came up with lint and some pocket change. The smile that Hart had, half slipped from his mouth but it soon found its place again.

“At least it is a wonderful evening and nothing can take that away.”

He felt the uneven brick and cobblestone underneath his boot. They centered his thoughts between romantic reveries and reality. Passing by, he saw the dreamy, intoxicated expressions of others. They mirrored his, indulging in the atmosphere. Smiling faces from behind a busy ice cream shop window were working diligently as the university students lined up outside. At the Italian place down the block and across the street, a waiter on the patio looks distantly as he clears a table. His face is one that is drifting between remembering an order and dispelling a lazy daydream.

“I know someone who owes me a few cold drinks.” With his expression and smile restored at the thought, he proclaimed, “I’m heading for a drink!” He beamed broadly as he sauntered down a dimly lit alleyway. A solitary streetlight stretched his shadow, making it appear much taller and more threatening. This doppelganger trailed at his heels. He whistled distractedly down the garbage filled alley then turned sharply at a black painted, metal safety door. He hopped up a set of 3 steps and knocked on the steel entrance. A pair of eyes looked at him from the slat. He grinned and flashed a loose thumbs-up. The deadbolt from the other side opened with a grinding noise, unlocking the door. It was pulled open by muscled guy with a cigarette in his mouth.

“Hey, you got one of those for me, Ken?” He gestured with two fingers imitating the action of smoking.

“Of course-where’ve you been these days?” He said gruffly as he flipped open his pack and tossed him one. “Thanks again for taking a look at my car the other day.”

Leaning into his lit match, Hart puffed on his newly acquired smoke.

“Anytime.” He said offhandedly

“Thanks as always, Ken.” He then replied to the bouncers inquiry with shadows and smoke, “Nowhere really, drifting, you know?” The bouncer nodded and didn’t press further. As they exchanged some friendly sentiments, he followed him inside. They headed down the steps into a smoky, poorly lit bar. He put a hand on Harts shoulder as they stepped into the basement and said, “If you need another, I’ll be out front.”

A few tables with some patrons sat laughing, conversing and drinking with the heaviest hands found around these Northwest streets. He walked up to the bar and an old man with gray hair greeted him.

“Well now Hart, what will ye’ be havin’?” He adjusted his glasses then picked up a mug and polished it with a white dishrag.

“Could you spot a cold one, Tom?” Looking at him in earnest, he spoke softly, “I’m a little down and out right now.” Hart placed his hands on the dark stained oak bar, “I’m just so damn thirsty all the time, I dunno’ what it is!” He smiled and the barman shook his head but he obliged the request. He produced not one can of lager beer from the fridge but 5 in a bucket full of ice.

“You gonna’ help me out with these dishes or mopping up when I need ya’?” Hart raised his hands shoulder high with his palms flat and as an oath said, “On my honor as a gentleman and a friend!”

He snapped off a cap from another bottle with a lightening quick hand. They both raised can and bottle and chinked them together “Here ya’ go, boy.” They looked at each other in understanding and grinned. “I hope all is well with you.” The old man guzzled his brew, smacked his lips then wiped his grizzly white beard with the rag he had been polishing the mugs with.

Hart walked over to the billiard table, where he struck up a conversation with a familiar face. He was a student at the gated university around the corner. His manner and thought were sharp beyond his age. He also had a deft hand at pool. This blonde, straight-haired guy wore framed glasses and a turtleneck and brown corduroys. He seemed sorely out of place in this smoky dungeon.

Damn, you’re stackin’ up them wins, eh?” As always, Tom refused most winnings and just asked for a drink or two.

Hart sat enjoying his frothy and cold beverage on a stool against the wall and watched how the games were progressing. This kid thoroughly trounced them at the game; some went hysterical and others just laughed. Either way, he stood as he always did, hands in his pocket, leaning against the wall and smiling in an unapologetic way. He saw Hart and left his not-so-collegiate company and shook his hand. Wordlessly, they went over to the pool table.

The pool balls rolled out from underneath the inner workings of the table and he set them on top in a perfect triangle unaided. Like thunder, the cue ball cracked the triangle, splitting it into atoms all across the table. They began to speak casually; their conversation mostly hovered around philosophy, abstractions, music and the like.

“I don’t know what I’m trying to find.” He pulled on a cigarette pressed between his lips.

“I can’t even consider myself searching.” Hart was watching the ceramic balls splash against the others. “It just isn’t as simple as words would define.” He blew smoke up towards the low ceiling, making the billiard lamp shed a different and temporary light. “I have a pulling sensation, an eager flame that wishes to seek.”

“Seek what?” Hart questioned and looked up from the table. His expression was contrasted from the darkness of a smoke filled room and the glow of the hanging pool lamp.

“I can’t say for sure. An ocean of fragments and half formed notions crowd up here.”

Hart tapped on his head with his knuckles. “Well, it’s you and me both, brother.” “It seems,” he continued, “That when you have an excess of pockets, you have an excess of want to fill those pockets.”

The college kid took a long draught of his liquid gold and readjusted his glasses. “Strictly speaking chemistry that is, beer is a solution and can certainly fill enough pockets for a time, Hart.”

He smiled broadly but something darkened his brow before he could relish his wit. There was something tragic in his words that both parties understood. Hart drank to a familiar unrecognizable sadness and laughed heartily. It startled Tom.

The college student scratched the cue ball uncharacteristically. Somebody picked a strange and melancholy tune on the jukebox.

 

“…And a roving young fellow I’ve been,

So be easy and free when you’re drinking with me,

I’m a man you don’t meet every day,

I have acres of land,

I have men at command,

I have always a shilling to spare…”

 

He lifted the ball up and handed it to Hart, whom accepted it and placed it back onto the felt of the table. He struck with a well-chalked stick and the pool balls themselves went searching for pockets.

 

“…So come fill up your glasses with brandy and wine,

Whatever it costs I will buy…”

 

Hart couldn’t conceal a yawn and the night was getting on. He turned away from the table before his turn completed itself; 4 stripes sunk pockets. He turned back to the table, nodded and called the corner left pocket. He struck at the 8-ball. It banked two sides of the green felt table, slowed, and then fell into the desired corner.

 

I took out my dog and him I did shoot,

Oh,

Down in county Kildare…”

 

“You are the only one who wins against me, you know that, Hart?” He poked with two fingers at the wire frames of his glasses; they were drooping to the bridge of his nose. “Who are you?” Hart pulled his jacket on and waved to the bar tender.

His voice was trailing behind him as he spoke to Tom almost as dismissively as unsure, “I dunno’…till next time, friend.

 

“So be easy and free when you’re drinking with me, I’m a man you don’t meet everyday…”

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