After the engagement party, everyone had left the bar except Sam, Taylor and John. They had sent Erik off with his new fiancée Melissa into the warm September night, casting plenty of whistles and mimed pelvic thrusts towards the couple as they disappeared down the street. John had quit smoking three years earlier, but as he stood outside the bar with Sam and Taylor, he inhaled the thick smoke of an American Spirit. He looked up at the sky and saw the full moon. It was difficult to tell that the moon was full since the streetlights washed out the natural, white illumination, which was one of the things John loved most in the world. In order to really see the moon's glow, he would have to find a dark street or a rooftop-someplace outside of Manhattan.
When Sam, Taylor and John re-entered the bar, they saw that the pool table was empty.
"Put these quarters down," Sam said. "I'll buy you bastards drinks."
Sam pushed his way up to the bar. He was broadly built and his weight had fluctuated over the years. Currently, he was between being fat and being in shape, but slowly edging his way back towards the former. Taylor placed the quarters on the pool table and slid his hands into his pockets.
"Erik," he said. "Who would have thought?"
"You could always tell that he really liked her."
"Still, he of all people is gonna get married."
"You think you'll get married by thirty?"
"Its better not to think that way."
John shrugged his shoulders. Sam burst from the bar carrying three pints of beer in his large hands.
"Rack 'em," he bellowed.
Taylor inserted the quarters into the table and pushed the lever. The balls tumbled out and he began to order them in the red rack. An older man with a bald head, glasses and a worn denim jacket walked up to the table.
"What are you doing?" The man said in a very dry tone. His accent sounded vaguely Midwestern.
"We're gonna play," Sam said.
"No you're not," the man said, smiling.
"Because its still my table. I get to play one of you."
Sam collected his weight. John was slightly nervous since they had all had quite a few drinks and Sam was known to fight.
"How is that?" Sam asked.
"Simple. I beat everyone I played and there was no one left who wanted to play. Now that you guys want to play, you've got to play and beat me."
Sam laughed. "That's ridiculous, but if that's the way you want to be old man, then we'll play you and we'll beat you."
The man nodded. "Who's gonna shoot?"
"You take it, Taylor. You're the best anyway," Sam said. He pointed at the old man. "You can beat George over there."
John and Taylor both laughed. They knew that Sam had just decided on the spot, by his own brand of logic, that he was going to call the man "George" for the rest of the night. There was no rhyme or reason to it, it was just something he did to irritate a stranger if they happened to get on his nerves at a bar or a party or during a pick-up game. He'd been doing it for years. The old man didn't flinch, though, and picked up a cue. He began to sharpen the edge with chalk.
"Your break," Taylor said to the man.
The man bent to shoot the cue ball at the head of the table. As he was preparing to shoot, Sam said:
"Alright, George! Let it rip!"
Again the man was unaffected. His break knocked the 11 ball in.
"Stripes," the man said. He proceeded to make the 14 and the 9 before he missed. Taylor was able to hit a difficult shot and knock the 3-ball into the side pocket. However, on a cross-table shot, he missed the 5-ball into the corner pocket. The old man prepared to shoot again.
"You got any kids, George?" Sam asked.
"Why do you think my name is George?"
"I don't know-you just look like a George."
Each time that Sam said the name "George," he seemed to relish every aspect of the word-the two soft "g's" on either end and the deep "or" in the middle. The name was becoming something tangible; it was a weapon against whatever injustice the man represented to Sam.
"Fine," the man said. He positioned himself and made the 10-ball.
John could sense Sam getting antsy. Taylor was sipping his beer and surveying the table. As the man readied himself to shoot again, John knew that he had to do something. He knew that he had to participate in their team effort. With the warmth and nonchalance of the night's collected drinking swirling in his face, John set himself behind the man as he prepared to shoot. He leaned his head right over the man's shoulder. The man smelled like vanilla pipe tobacco.
"You sure you want to shoot that shot, George?" John said, feigning concern.
The man looked back at John. He grinned, but John could see the scorn behind it. The man focused on his shot.
"I don't know, George," John said.
The man remained intent on shooting.
"Oh, OK, OK. Yeah I see. It's a good shot. Wait, are you sure?"
The man missed the 13-ball in the side pocket and it rolled long toward the corner.
"George!" Sam bellowed. "What happened?"
The man nodded and smiled, again attempting to hide his scorn. John could see he was breaking and couldn't help but laugh at Sam and his complete air of incredulity. Taylor made the 7-ball in the corner pocket and John finished his beer.
"I'll get the next three," he said.
"You want anything, George?" Sam asked.
"No," the man said.
John walked toward the bar. It was crowded, but he managed to find a space. The TVs above the bar were playing the Red Sox and Yankees game. The Yankees had already clinched the division, so the result didn't matter. John suddenly felt bad for what he, Sam and Taylor were doing to the man at the pool table. But, as the bartender slid him three pints and John left the money for the tip, the feeling passed. The man was sticking to a stupid rule and acting like a child. The guy deserved to be made fun of and John deserved to have fun with his friends. They were still young and he worked so hard all week.
John handed off the beers to Taylor and Sam. Taylor shot and made the 4-ball in-he had made the 2-ball while John was away from the table. Taylor and the man were now tied.
"Oh, George," Sam said. "Looks like you're in some trouble."
The man ignored Sam while Taylor surveyed the table. He took a long drink from his beer and placed it back down on one of the wooden ledges along the wall. Taylor leaned to shoot. He made the 6-ball in the corner pocket.
"Yes!" Sam shouted. "See, George. My man is on a roll. You had no idea what you were getting into."
"Alright, Vinny," the man said. "Quiet down."
"That's right. You can take all your shit back to the Jersey Shore."
"Whoa, George! Come on now."
The man started laughing and shook his head; it was a strange, harsh, halting laughter. He continued laughing, then he leaned on his pool cue and frowned.
Sam looked at John and smiled, his eyes squinting and his broad white teeth shining, especially his two pointed top teeth. Sam's joy was contagious and John couldn't help but feel good about their teamwork in psyching the man out. The victory in the pool game would just punctuate the celebrations of the night; it would help further the buzz.
Taylor shot again and knocked the 1-ball in across the table; it was a very difficult shot. All he had to do now was make the 5 and the 8 to close out the game. Taylor shot and missed the 5 in the side pocket. The angle he had left himself was too sharp.
The man stepped back to the table, ready to shoot.
"It's perfectly fine to lose the game, George," Sam said. "Nothing to be ashamed of."
Sam laughed. He was happy the man had finally risen to meet his jabs. The man made the 15-ball in the corner pocket, shooting straight down the right side of the table. Then he quickly turned and made the 12-ball in the side pocket. He had set himself up neatly and only had the 13 and 8 balls left to make.
As the man prepared to shoot again, John knew that it was his turn to step up. Again, he perched himself over the man's shoulder; just close enough to avoid completely invading the man's space.
"A lot of pressure," John said. "Game's tied. Can't make mistakes."
"You don't have to do Vinny's bitch-work," the man said.
"I don't know what you mean. I'm just trying to be helpful."
"This is fun to you, huh?"
"Just a Saturday night."
The man pulled the cue back to shoot.
"Just be careful, George."
The man shot and made the 13-ball in. All he had to do to end the game was sink the 8-ball. John knew his jibes wouldn't really affect the man, but he was mad at himself nonetheless, mad that they hadn't worked. The man had a relatively easy angle on the 8-ball and he readied himself to make the shot.
"Well, George," Sam said. "Looks like you have it. Game's all wrapped up. 8-ball set up in the corner pocket. Just gotta pull back and make it."
The man didn't flinch. He shot at the 8-ball, but pushed it against the corner felt and it bounced back, moving the cue ball towards the center of the table.
"Oh, George!" Sam said. "Oh, no."
Taylor finished his pint and sharpened his cue. John was impressed at how focused he had remained on the game the entire time. Taylor aimed and easily pushed the 5-ball into the side pocket that he had missed earlier. The cue ball hardly moved, so Taylor crossed over to the other side of the table, leaned in and shot the 8-ball right into the corner pocket. He had won the game.
"Yes!" Sam jumped off his stool and slapped Taylor five, holding on and pulling him in for a quick chest bump. John walked over and patted Taylor on the back.
"Well," Sam said, "it was nice playing you, George. I hope you enjoyed yourself here tonight. Can I buy you a beer?"
The man adjusted his glasses and buttoned the bottom two buttons of his denim jacket.
"See ya around, Vinny," he said looking in the other direction. Then, without saying anything further, he walked to the door.
"At least he wasn't a sore loser," Sam said. "Another round?"
They stayed at the bar, finished their round and ordered another. The Yankees and Red Sox went into extra innings and they finished their second round as the game ended on a walk-off single by Cano. The TV switched to a movie channel where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was playing. They talked about the greatness of young Jack Nicholson and then about the greatness of being young in general. John said there was no way to appreciate it while you were young, but that understanding and appreciating only really happened after the fact.
"I hate that phrase 'youth is wasted on the young'," John said. "But maybe it's true."
"We're still so young," Sam slurred.
Then Sam and Taylor got sentimental, telling stories about Erik. Sam rambled on and made a point about how much he hoped that Erik and Melissa's eventual marriage would last. John had not seen Sam that drunk in a long time and he had forgotten how sensitive he could be, especially at the end of a long night. They finished their last beers, took turns peeing and then walked out into the night. They hugged goodbye on the street and Sam and Taylor split a cab heading to Brooklyn, while John walked alone towards the West Side.
He was walking when suddenly a man stepped out from a stoop smoking a pipe. It was the man from the pool game. The vanilla pipe tobacco smelled fresh and good and the pipe dangled from the man's mouth. His eyes were squinty and he looked very tired. John wondered if the man had gotten very drunk at another bar after their game of pool.
"Are you alright, sir?" John asked.
"No, we don't have to do that."
"I'm sorry for the game."
The man stepped close to John and pushed his shoulder.
"You bastards. You think you can talk to people like that?"
John shook his head. "We were having a good time and took it too far. I'm sorry."
The man pushed John's shoulder again.
"No," he said.
"Yes, and I'm sorry. Look, I'm drunk. You're drunk. It's Saturday. Let's just leave each other alone and go home and start over on Sunday."
The man pushed John twice. John stood his ground and the man approached him again, gripping his pipe with his teeth. Then suddenly he stepped back. He took the pipe out and spit. He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his jacket. The man packed more tobacco in the pipe and lit it. Smoke puffed out in thick rolls. He held up his fist and John prepared to dodge a punch, but it never came. Instead the man exhaled and let his hand drop.
"I'm going home," the man said.
The man fixed his glasses, took two more puffs off the pipe and walked past John down the street. John walked over to the stoop the man had emerged from and tied his shoes. He watched the man disappear around the corner. John stood for a moment, exhaled and continued walking. The night was cool and it made his eyes water and his nose run slightly. His heart was beating with excitement from the threat of danger and violence that the confrontation had brought. John wondered if he should have just left the bar with Erik and Melissa and not even played pool; he wasn't sure.
John continued on his way home. At a corner, he wiped his nose with his jacket. As he did so, he smelled the faint vanilla tobacco scent on his sleeve in the cold, early autumn night.