The Road Players

Don’t think, just shoot.

That’s what Donnie “Fats” Fazelli would tell us down at the pool hall on 41st Ave. It’s the only advice he ever gave—the only advice worth taking, he’d say. Some thought it was a throwaway line, like he didn’t want to spill any real secrets of the trade. But he’d say it in a half-whisper, with his eyes hard and narrow. Like he fucking meant it. And man, he never lost a game. When Fats died a couple years back, a few of us pitched in and hung a neon sign over the bar with those four little words.

Don’t think, just shoot.

But those were the good ol’ days.

When the economy tanked, things got strange at the pool hall. Road players came through, looking to make their rent on the tables. Some came from as far as Reno and Vegas, and those guys really had the stone-cold nuts.

“Don’t look,” said Ralphie. “See those guys in back?” We were halfway through our second pitcher, and Ralphie was outdrinking me again. He was starting to get that slow drift in his left eye like the beer made it float in the socket.

“I can’t see them if I don’t look, buddy,” I said.

“Just a peek, then.”

I took a sip from my pint glass and sidled my eyes across the room. From what I could see, a couple of bikers from out of town had run up the stakes on some local frat boys. One was bald with a red beard and tattoos on his scalp, the other had long hair and a clean-shaven face. I suppose they evened each other out that way.

“You see how much?” I asked.

“I’d say three grand in the rack, easy.”

“Goddamn.”

The action only got hotter. Soon, others in the hall were giving up on their own games and starting side bets on the biker/frat boy game. I was happy just blowing off steam with a few pitchers and a set of 9-ball with the locals—but Ralphie wanted more.

“Let’s play the bikers next,” he said. “I’m tired of playing for beer money.”

I chalked up and gave him a grin.

“What’s that look for?” he said.

“Those guys are pros. And we’re three pitchers deep already.”

“So what? Imagine what Barb would say if I brought home a wad of cash like that?”

There was an edge to his voice. I knew he needed the money.

I tried to let him down easy.

“Buddy, it’s not our night. We ain’t exactly at top speed, here.”

“You’re overthinking it, man. You know what Fats would say.”

“He’d say better to go home in one piece than blow a dime on this shitshow.”

Shitshow must have been a magic word, because when I said it, things got ugly on the other side of the bar. The frat boys sunk the moneyball, and they weren’t humble about it. Next came threats and oaths. Mothers were dishonored, manhoods ridiculed. Faces turned red and hostile. Someone made a move for the cash and the bikers drew heat.

Gunshot.

Screaming.

Everyone ran for cover.

The long-haired man grabbed the cash and went barreling toward the door.

Ralphie’s left eye clicked back to center and I didn’t like what I saw there—a wild and unchecked impulse. He choked up on the pool cue and laid that thing flat across the long-haired man’s nose before I could stop him. The man went sideways and dumped the gun and cash over the felt before crumpling to the floor.

Shit.

I scooped up the gun—a shiny big-bore revolver—and brought it up just as the bald-headed man loomed over us with his own weapon drawn.

We locked eyes for a split second.

He blinked.

I didn’t.

Every pool game the bald-headed biker would ever play again went chumming over the tables like Spaghetti-Os. When he hit the floor, silence gripped the pool hall. The only sounds were the crinkling of cash as Ralphie stuffed his pockets and the buzz of Donnie “Fats” Fazelli’s neon sign.

I glanced at those four glowing words. I swear the sign flickered at me.