William Russell Wallace is the editor-in-chief of CutBank and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. He grew up in Ohio and Virginia, but spent much of the last decade on the road, singing songs and making friends. And sometimes enemies. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana.
My youth? I hear it mostly in the long, volleying
Echoes of billiards in the pool halls where
I spent it all, extravagantly, believing
My delicate touch on a cue would last for years.
— Larry Levis
I wrote Marie back. It was a love letter, a farewell card. That was over a year ago now. She responded, in a way, but then there weren’t any more letters. I never brought it up again. Who writes letters now anyway? She still lives in Gainesville, and I try to see her when I’m in town. We have drinks and we shoot pool and I spend a lot of money while she complains about the college kids and the punk rockers and also the humidity and that strange claustrophobia you get when you live in Florida but are 100 miles from the ocean. But she loves it here. It’s cheap living and it rains every day for at least a few minutes and that really gets her off somehow. And in between the rain it’s as much fun in the sun as a girl could want. She has the outline of the state of Florida tattooed on her arm. She takes the good with the bad.
That’s the natural state of loving things, little man, she says to me now. Punches are thrown and one must roll with them or else be knocked the fuck out.
She has learned a lot, she tells me, and I believe her. I think maybe she smokes too much pot and drinks more than she should, but that’s all right. A lot of us do things like that. She’s happy and she’s in love. Isn’t that what’s important?
Get this: She was in love with me once. She never said it, but believe me, she was. Now she’s in love with this divorced ex-junkie. He’s a dozen years older than her. He works in the kitchen of the pizza place where she tends bar.
But listen, I don’t want to sound resentful. I’m not. Those are the honest facts about the guy. I’ve met Jack a few times; he shakes my hand firmly and doesn’t ask questions. He kisses her on the cheek when she doesn’t expect it. He seems like a man who has learned lessons from his past, who knows that lovely stories are born from harsh facts all the time.
And yet, as all men do, I assume that I’m the better man when I see them together. I see her and him looking at each other and all I can do is remember the steady rhythm she and I had. She laughs at something he says, and I think about the way she’d sink her teeth deep into the meat between my neck and shoulders. And then I think about the time that she sang “You Send Me" in this haunting, moaning voice as I pinned her wrists to the bed.
That was special. That was only for us.
I say this to myself while I’m shooting pool in Palomino’s. The tables here run fast and there’s an old-fashioned jukebox against the wall. A group of young hip girls have set up camp in the corner. They’ve all brought their own cues. Player cues, no more than a hundred bucks a pop. A fine stick for beginners. Across the room, Marie and Jack are holding hands between barstools. She’s wearing the same blue and red cotton dress she wore when we met once in Decatur. I can still see her shutting the hotel room door behind me and that dress beginning to fall from her shoulders to her hips, stuttering there, and then down to the floor.
I wonder how it will fall tonight, and if he’ll watch it and study it and keep that memory under a bell jar in his mind the way I do.
I’m shooting against a bulbous old man who talks to himself as he lines up his shots. He curses when he misses an easy cut on the eight, setting me up, and I remember that I’ve had times like that with other girls. Not with those exact movements and smells and motions, but something very much like it. And I know she’s gone and done the same with other men, with Jack.
This is a good thing, I say to myself, and I attempt a bank shot. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s getting late now and Jack goes out to meet some friends but Marie stays behind. I join her at the bar and she asks me to ride with her to buy cocaine.
. . .
When I lived here, I shot straight eight on a team with another man Marie loved. He was the team captain, a hell of a shot, young and handsome. He worked in business. Our team was good, and I stuck around town — even thought about applying to school here — because I liked playing with that crew.
Marie loved to shoot pool too. And she might have been better than the lot of us. She had a Lucasi custom cue. It was nineteen-and-a-half stunning ounces, floating split back and bacote wood points with metal diamond inlays on natural curly maple. She looked wild when she flashed that stick, bar light kicking off the finish like it was a ceremonial dagger. We’d sit back and watch her cut hearts out with that thing.
She talked about pool the way Southerners once talked about church. She used words like fellowship and spiritual.
Wholeness, she said once.
I asked her to explain.
You can win or lose the fucking game without the other guy taking a single shot, she said.
And you don’t call that luck?
I call that purity.
When her man left town for a business trip, she hung out with me. One night, we got drunk and shared a cab and she invited me in.
What about Ronnie? I asked, but I was already moving my hand up her leg.
What about him?
He’s my friend.
He’s a pool friend. A teammate. And we’re open. It’s fine.
It’ll make things weird.
Look at it this way, she said. You wouldn’t stop shooting pool because he left, would you?
No, I said.
And I’m not going to stop doing what I enjoy either.
It happened. And it happened again. And again. He returned eventually. She was fine. I was fine. He wasn’t fine. Then things were weird, and then I was the one who was gone, out of money, all the way back to Cincinnati. She dumped his ass and took a Greyhound north to see me, stayed for ten glorious days. No matter what’s happened since, or who she’s with now, you can’t tell me that wasn’t love.
She doesn’t play pool seriously anymore.
It’s therapy now, she says. The sound of the balls, the chalk on the tip. It levels me out.
She tells me the Lucasi is in her hallway closet. These days, she smacks drunken frat boys around and wins herself drinks with crooked house cues.
It feels better, she says. It’s purer to beat them with whatever’s on hand. Just me, no help from the outside.
. . .
Her dealer is a punk kid I’ve never seen. He stares me down but talks to her like they grew up together. We get out of there and sit in the backseat of her car and she uses my credit card to cut up four absolute rails on the back of Jack’s band’s CD case. She asks me not to tell Jack about this and I agree. We take turns. Soon our blood is burning.
I’m in a healthy relationship for the first time in my life, she says.
I’m hurt by that. We never lived together, but I never thought of us as unhealthy.
I tell her so, tell her that I believe we had owned something real; we were just poor victims of circumstance and distance.
She licks the residue from the CD case and that gets the rest of me burning too.
She thinks about what I said before saying that a child born with a chronic illness, through no fault of its own, is still an unhealthy child.
I point out that such children are often viewed as special gifts by their parents.
The parents have to say that, she says. And it goes on like that and I realize we’ve bought some very good cocaine.
Marie has gained some weight now but it suits her. She was shapely before, usually in small cutoff jean shorts on top of dark tights, her hair always pulled back in black or red bandanas. All tits and eyelashes and auburn curls. She was a stunning girl then, but she’s something else now. That night in that hotel in Decatur, I did a line off her chest and after I licked her clean she took a slug from a whiskey bottle and let her spill all down her front, dripping from her pink nipples into my mouth. Then she bent over and I inhaled another line from just above the crack of her ass. Her ass has a new curve to it now; it’s even more suited for that sort of beautiful debauchery. She’ll never be able to do those things with Jack.
God, we live in a terrible world for love; she’s got to lie to get high!
And think about it: She took me with her tonight, not him. Does she want me to think about those things? Do I make a move? I want to remember how she feels.
But listen, I’m not some creep. I’m as high as I’ve been in years, yes. And a little drunk. And she’s laughing and talking like a firecracker and I think she’s moved closer to me in the backseat. Or maybe I’ve moved closer to her. When she lowers her head to look at her phone, the screen lights her up and I can see pretty well down the front of that dress. This has to be on purpose, right?
Let me tell you something: You wouldn’t even believe the way she looks naked. Naked and lying down — hills and valleys, all presenting themselves! If you’d have seen her like that, back in those days the way that I saw her, and then you saw her again tonight filling up that dress, hell, it would beat you over the head too. I’m not some creep for admitting it. If you were here, in the shape that I’m in, you’d be thinking the same things as me.
When I first met her I was as broke as she was, as broke as she is now. I was living on the road, running from the wreckage of all my empty affairs. I was so starved of heat in those days. I’d never found a bed as warm as hers.
And that body. It saturated me with this new, childlike wish for adventure. She made me want to climb trees. She made me want to get mud on my new sneakers.
Imagine me, an intergalactic explorer! And I map the galaxy of her freckles with a meticulous hand.
Imagine me, a noble privateer! And I discover new ways to fall asleep and claim them in the name of the queen.
She told me tales of past romances and the failures endured there, but imagine me, as brave as Caesar! And I vanquish those ghost-tribes of aboriginal ex-lovers and send them off to labor in the salt mines.
I know I get carried away when the uppers kick in. And I know if you’d seen her then and if you could see her now, you’d get it.
But I swear I’m not here to try and wreck their love. Honestly.
We’re on our way back to the bar when Marie pulls up to her house. She leaves the car on and sprints inside. She returns, still running, with a leather case tucked under her arm.
She opens the door and sets the Lucasi on my lap.
Let’s have some fun tonight, she says.
She throws the car into drive and we’re off, slashing through the unlit neighborhood streets. They all look the same, feel the same, even sound the same. Those streets are so similarly named it seems like the city planner wanted folks to get lost. We’re on — I shit you not — NE 10th Avenue, then NE 10th Street, then NE 10th Place.
I never knew my way around this town. But Marie is local, born of the swamp, and she swerves through the backstreets, barely checking and taking turns, and pulls us back onto University Avenue. The lights from the main drag pour onto her, disappear, gush in again, illuminating her in a hundred small moments. There are no moves to be made when we’re flying like this. It’ll do for now.
. . .
Now Marie and I are back in Palomino’s, high as hell, and Jack and his friends have come back and we’re shooting doubles. I’m on fire, like Paul Newman in the final scene of The Hustler. I’m on the verge of a break and run and I can feel it. Seven stripes are in. The eight is all that’s left, but the solids are everywhere, like fat little bodyguards, blocking every decent shot at it.
So let’s say you call it, three rails with the cue and kiss that eight into the corner. If you miss it, people will laugh and shrug it off, since you’re not supposed to ever make that shot. Depending on how close you come, they may applaud your attempt. Even if you’re unlucky and scratch the damn thing, they’ll have forgotten about it the next time you play.
But if you sink that motherfucker.
You might get a few free drinks. You might impress a pretty girl. You might get a story to tell every game for the rest of your life. Marie is my teammate tonight, my girl again. Jack cannot make this shot: He doesn’t have the skill or the luck. He doesn’t see the purity. He won’t ever even get a chance at this shot. I wait for her eyes to meet mine before I line it up. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.
. . .
I take a new drink outside with me to smoke a cigarette. The sun has been down for hours but it’s still getting hotter. And the damn humidity. That’s the real killer. It’s the kind of humid that would cause violent crimes and riots in a crowded, more ambitious city.
There’s a loud dance club on the other side of University Avenue where a fight has broken out. Probably because of the humidity. There are cop cars with pulsing lights and tight-bodied people in their best clothes all around the doorway. The bulbous man who played me earlier in the night is out here smoking. He’s muttering something at the scene across the street. Jack comes out too. He lights a cigarette beside me.
Where’s Marie? I ask.
She doesn’t smoke anymore, he says. Quit a few months ago. How long are you in town?
Just for tonight, I say.
He is not the handsome type of redhead. He still drinks. Marie says the booze was never the problem, it was all the dope. I’ve met a lot of people who claim to be addicts who are really just selfish children with too much time on their hands. They refer to themselves as addicts and stop when it suits them best, usually when they’re out of money. To me, Jack just sounds like a half-assed quitter.
After a few drinks, he’s bloated and red-faced. He has an unkempt, lazy beard, and flour and pizza dough are spattered on his jean shorts. He’s wearing an ironic, badly-fitting T-shirt, featuring the cover art from KISS’ Love Gun album. He’s the kind of guy that somehow looks overweight and bony at the same time. Marie just can’t be comfortable sleeping beside him.
Listen, man, I say. I want to tell you something.
Marie is always happy to see you, he says. You’re a big part of her past. That stuff is important.
I don’t want to get into any bullshit rehab philosophy. I decide I’m going to make my move.
It’s not just the past, I say. Things happened tonight.
What are you talking about?
She took me with her to buy coke. We did it together.
Jack looks to the fluorescent burn in the bar window.
She’s high right now, I say.
He lowers his head and sucks hard on his cigarette and I want to know how he fucks her and how often they do it and if she loves him all around and inside her or if she feels obligated. I want to know how the hell she can say they’re healthy when she sneaks off to do blow with an ex-lover behind her man’s back. I want to know how she can settle down with a bum who’s built like a garbage bag full of lawn clippings. I want another bump. My high is wearing off.
Did you hear me? I say. We got high tonight.
Yeah, she does that sometimes.
And she doesn’t tell you.
I don’t need to know, he says.
Doesn’t it bother you?
I can’t tell her what to do, he says. I don’t want to be around it. But she can do what she wants.
Jack puts out his cigarette and turns back to Palomino’s.
If she ever needs it, he says. She knows I’ll help her.
I can’t believe this guy. The crowd continues to leak out of the nightclub and spill all over the sidewalk. A barefoot blonde in smeared makeup and a tight neon skirt walks close by me, her heels gripped in one hand and a cell phone in the other. She’s yelling into it, nearly crying about the shitshow the night has turned into.
He’s such a selfish prick, she says. I’ve got my own shit to deal with, you know?
You and me both, sister.
I bet Jack gives up the booze soon too. One step at a time, right? I’ve thought about doing that a few times. I’ll think about it again tomorrow. Right now, my head is hurting and I’m thinking — honestly thinking — that it’s a good thing our love fell apart, that the distance dried it right up.
Christ, I believe I could have died for that woman. But not in a way I’d want to go.
It’s a good thing she quit me. And now she’s quitting other things too. She’s already two vices down. This asshole is probably going to save her life someday.
. . .
That love letter I told you about. I don’t normally write letters, but this was a good one, a real romantic gesture. It had to be. I mean, just listen to what she wrote me first:
Dear Lee, it started. And then: I’m sorry, little man. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
She wrote it out three times, just like that. Who writes letters like that? Then she wrote that our love had become like a puppy in a classified ad: We were sweet and housebroken but too expensive and too much responsibility and the landlord didn’t much like the way that our hearts would howl, the way we’d keep the neighbors awake at night. I was very drunk when I read it. And when a girl like that writes you something like that and you read it in such a sad state, what can you do except love her more?
So when I was moving out of my apartment on Ludlow, I found a picture of Marie and me on the white sand beaches of Pensacola, both of us leaping into the air, our arms held high and our legs turned up to the side like bad cheerleaders, with this fiercely setting sun making a pink and orange halo around us. It’s a fantastic picture. I wanted to be romantic. And I wanted to one-up her letter. I found this poem where the writer reminds us that before he fell, Icarus first flew. The whole thing was a triumph; the falling was the end of the triumph, rather than a failure. It’s the same when love ends, the poem says. Real poety, I know. But don’t tell me you don’t dig the idea.
I wrote my favorite parts on the back of the picture and mailed it to Marie. But it came off the wrong way and she called me out.
She texted me, saying: Dude, you can’t do things like that.
Well, shit. It wasn’t supposed to be an attempt to dredge up nostalgia or weaken the resolve of her new love. It was supposed to be a thank-you card for teaching me that it’s not wrong to let things live well and then die.
But I didn’t really believe that. If I did, I wouldn’t have sent anything at all.
That’s simply how I wanted her to take it. Looking back, she didn’t misunderstand the gesture at all. I did. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.
. . .
Now I’m back inside and the high is gone. In the corner of the room, Marie is glowing with goodness and bar light and picking out killer songs on the jukebox and for a moment we make that old kind of eye contact and I wonder if she’s thinking that it’s the strangest thing in the world to not love someone anymore. She plays a Thin Lizzy song.
She pulls at Jack’s hand and brings him close. They dance badly in the tiny space between pool tables. They’re dancing closer and slower than most people would to a song this fast, and as he touches his forehead against hers, he looks like the mattress to her box spring: There are secrets stashed between these two, pressed hard together, that no one else will ever know.
The drinks will flow and the blood will spill — that’s the nature of loving things, little man. And if the boys wanna fight, you’d better let them.
They spin around and now Jack is making eye contact with me. It’s a joyful gaze that only a certain kind of drunk, in a certain kind of light, can make. I’m leaning against the pool table and I lift my glass and tilt it toward him.
Secrets between us too, he and I.
Two redheads! I’ve heard it said that it’s strange for two redheads to be a couple because everyone will think they’re siblings. Marie and Jack destroy that idea with every spin and every smile. Her hair is a darker shade of fire, and thicker, and as he twists her back into him, it whips around his face. A couple strands become tangled in his beard and he bites at it playfully. Now the bartender’s voice booms out the last call, and groups of drunken patrons turn to the bar, like wounded soldiers hearing a bugle sound their final charge to battle. Jack, never letting go of her hands, turns as well and pulls her arms around his neck. She saddles up and wraps her legs around his waist and the two of them piggyback toward the last drinks of the night, and her darker fire is now draped all down and among his strawberry shade, burning and burning and burning.
Marie is perched like wings on his back. And now I’m following them, running behind them to the bar.
I’m begging for another drink.
No, it’s something else: I’m begging them both to stay high, to keep it together, to never come down.