Robert L. Penick
I was the one to go check on Wilson because I was the one with the key. He gave it to me one night while we were shooting pool at Bennie’s Billiards, saying, “If I ever get locked up or hit by a bus, feed my turtle. Her name is Sheldon.” Turning back to the table, he then missed the easiest corner shot in the world. Wilson had been missing easy shots his entire life. I stashed the key in my glove box and didn’t think about it again. One time he locked himself out while on a bender; otherwise, the key stayed in its place.
We first met at the pool hall, at an informal Saturday night 8-ball tournament that cost eight (get it?) dollars to enter. At the last moment, my partner hadn’t shown up and there was Wilson, leaning against a rack of cues, sucking on a Budweiser. He certainly looked like he could play: Overweight, disheveled, but with delicate hands. Concert pianist hands, attached to great loaves of flesh. I’d noticed him a few times, lining up shots or stalking around a table, but I’d never watched him play. I asked, he accepted, and we entered. Signing in, I heard a muted tittering from the other players. I put together my two-piece cue and waited.
As it turned out, Wilson played pool about as well as Albert Einstein played rugby. Later, he gave me a specific neurological diagnosis for missing a nine-inch tap-in.
“It’s the same thing Jimmy Stewart had in Vertigo,” he explained. “Only linear. As long as I don’t have to judge distances, I’m okay. God help me if I ever wind up on a golf course.”
“Then why on Earth did you enter a tournament against a school of sharks?”
“I didn’t enter; you did. Then you invited me. No one ever invites me to be on their side in doubles matches. Sometimes they’ll put me and Blind Eddie together to fill out a bracket, but that’s just for yuks. It was a good time. We should do it again.”
So we did, becoming a fixture in the tournaments, once finishing as high as sixth out of eight teams. Soon we were watching sports at his place. Wilson’s apartment was a cavern, a one-bedroom basement unit with posters of Secretariat and Muhammad Ali on the walls. Working at the gas and electric company’s call center, he treasured his leisure time.
“Every day, it’s ‘my lights won’t come on.’ Well, did you pay your bill? ‘Aw, no,’ and they tell you the cat got sick and there was a vet bill, or the grandson was supposed to pay it, but got high instead. And you check the computer and they haven’t paid in eleven months. I get five or six of those calls a day. I feel like the priest of a very low-achieving parish. They come to me to confess how badly they’ve messed their lives up.”
Sports gave him an escape from his duties as gatekeeper at the temple of energy. The occasional trip to the race track let him assert some control in his life. Betting on a college basketball match-up put him behind the wheel of something. “That’s what I love about the pool hall,” he told me. “I ain’t winning, but at least I’m in the game.”
We discussed the stock market, there on his sofa during the Breeder’s cup horse races, and he helped me with my first buy. Fifty shares of Pennsylvania Power and Light. It was a small transaction, but it got me started in a new game. Sitting on his sofa, knocking down beer after beer, we discussed the viability of Tesla automobiles and pondered just what was keeping Chipotle stock so damned high. It was really the only intellectual discourse I had. My job for seventeen years involved driving a forklift in a warehouse filled with dozens of people, none of whom had ever seen the inside of a library. Wilson gifted me a used copy of The Art of War and it gave me something to think about while unloading washers and dryers from the trucks. Somehow, contemplating “Speed is the essence of war” on the job made me feel less of an equipment operating machine.
Around Thanksgiving in our second year as friends, we came the closest we ever did to winning the tournament. In the semifinal match, I broke first in the best-of-three series and ran the table. My greatest moment in the history of Bennie’s Billiards. The second game, Wilson had a horrid opening break that left the fifteen balls pretty much in their original position. The other guys, two accountants, ate us alive. I made the first of two shots, they nearly cleared the table, then Wilson blew his shit and we were done with that game. The third and tiebreaking game, both sides played badly until I had a run, nearly clearing the table. Then our opponent scratched our last ball into the side pocket and all my partner had to do was tap the eight ball into the corner and we were in the finals, the Cleveland Browns going to the Super Bowl. People were cheering! Lining up that shot, sweat on his upper lip, Wilson tapped it neatly into the pocket. Then, just like an obedient dog, the cue ball followed it right in.
Game over. Good guys lose.
It was crushing, for about ten minutes. Then we each drank a beer, the final got underway, and the accountants got utterly crushed. It began to look like what it was: A near-miss in a dingy pool hall on a Saturday night. Walking down to the White Castle, we discussed NFL football and the delicate structure of anterior cruciate ligaments, the risky nature of buying on margin, and the merits of fortified wine. I was not a fan, and Wilson tried to win me over.
“You get a fifth of MD 20/20, that’s like three dollars and it’s the equivalent of a twelve-pack of beer. You mix that fifty-fifty with water, add ice, and you’ve created four or five hours of nirvana.”
I knocked down five hamburgers and tried not to imagine what they or MD 20/20 might do to my digestive system.
Life seemed to sail along for my buddy after that. He had a paycheck and social contacts (if not close friends) at Bennie’s and the race track, wasn’t drinking more than the average car salesman, and his stock portfolio was enjoying a bull run. This, of course, is exactly the time when God decides to whip it out and take a gigantic leak on you. You are the Franklin Arctic Exhibition, warm and comfortable in your huts, then the lead poisoning kicks in. Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic, impressed with his magnificent new craft, decides to leave the bridge for a bit. Jesse James, at home with wife and trusted friends, decides to straighten a picture. Again, the lead poisoning. We’re always driving along just fine before the deer steps out into the road.
Wilson got separated from his job just after New Year’s, after allegedly mimicking an Indian shopkeeper who had called to complain about a series of estimated meter readings leaving him with a five grand adjusted bill each January.
“I wasn’t being a jerk,” he pleaded with me, the Mumbai inflection already creeping into his voice. “How do you not talk that way once you hear it? It’s irresistible.”
There were several other factors: Attendance, attitude, attire. While he had posited behaviors he believed to be in acceptable limits, the power company had been compiling an unimpeachable dossier for his dismissal. So he was pleasantly resigned to six to months of unemployment when a letter arrived from his landlord announcing the building’s sale to a property management company. “Condos?” His voice was incredulous but still Indian. “I live in the basement! Who wants a basement condo? This is beyond me.”
I tried to offer him a positive path. Told him it was a door opening, that something great could come from it. He hadn’t liked the job, anyway. These events afforded him the opportunity to plumb his soul, consult his spiritual animal (I was reaching), and charter a meaningful course forward through the sea of life. It was fifty percent pep talk and fifty percent unsolicited advice. I hoped for some fighting response from him, but instead he collapsed like a house in a mudslide: Sucked down Kentucky Tavern bourbon, lived on bags of Big Macs, and completely lost his passion for billiards.
After a few days of not seeing or hearing from him, I did the only thing I knew to do. I entered us in a tournament that would qualify the winners for a $100,000 tournament in Las Vegas. This time, instead of an eight-dollar fee, it was fifty and winning made us eligible to pony up a grand to enter the big show, taking place Fourth of July weekend at the Bellagio Casino. No way would we clear the qualifying round. Hell, we’d never won the shitbox Saturday night show. But we needed to be in the game, for myself nearly as much as for him. So I stopped by the day before, knocked, put a note on his door. Left a message on his voicemail, meet me there or I can pick you up.
The next night he didn’t show; I got Blind Eddie to fill in. We got our clocks cleaned by two guys from Cincinnati in matching Reebok tracksuits. I didn’t hang around. Dropping my cue into its case, I headed to Wilson’s and fished his key out of my glove box.
His mail was falling out of the mailbox, so I picked it up off the carpet. There were two envelopes marked ‘FINAL NOTICE,’ a letter from an attorney, plus postal cards for two registered letters. In addition, there were bills for cable television and from the electric company. My note was still stuck to the door. I banged a few times, then unlocked and entered.
The air had a sticky sweet smell. Thank goodness the air conditioning was on full blast, because it looked like Wilson had been dead for a few days. He sat on the sofa, his blackened tongue protruding from his mouth, dark fluid dripping from the cuffs of his pants, not watching the baseball game play out on his television. There were four bottles of bourbon on his coffee table. Three were empty, one nearly so. Three prescription bottles, all empty, lay jumbled next to the bottles. It seemed strange for a suicide, even more so for an accidental death. I walked over and waved my hand in front of his purple face. Just making sure. The pill bottles, upon examination, had contained 1) a beta blocker, 2) Xanax, and 3) Hytrin, which I learned later lowered blood pressure by dilating blood vessels. All that with the booze was enough for a permanent nap. So this was the way he wanted it. Okay.
I walked over to the kitchen table and fired up his laptop. Clicking through, I deleted his browser history and several bookmarks. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. I fed the turtle, then got a beer out of the refrigerator and sat down on the other side of the sofa. The authorities had to be called, but the Giants were only in the seventh inning out on the west coast. Wilson and I had one more game to finish.
Robert L. Penick’s work has appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and The California Quarterly. He lives in Louisville, KY with his free-range box turtle, Sheldon, and edit Ristau, a tiny literary annual. More writing can be found at www.theartofmercy.net