We’re often told that successful fiction catalogs a protagonist’s emotional transformation, but what I find most appealing about Bobby Grace’s “Cue Ball” is that the two main characters, best friends who we follow from childhood to adulthood, resist change to the very end. As a child, Rory moves from Ireland to Arkansas and grows up feeling like an outsider. He latches onto BB, a troubled boy who idolizes his hustler father. When BB’s father abandons him, he decides to follow in his footsteps and leave town too, even though Rory is certain that his friend will meet a terrible fate. Over several decades, we watch the boys' physical transformations, but despite BB’s determination to destroy himself and his friendship, Rory’s love for him persists. Ultimately, “Cue Ball” is a story about devotion and vulnerability, about making a home in people instead of places, and accepting that some people cannot be changed, but deciding to love them anyway.
“Dad says the trick is lookin where you’re hittin. Not at the cue ball. That’s what everybody thinks. They stare down that cue ball like their life depends on it, and next thing ya know they’re clangin balls all over the table like they got the shakes or somethin.” I’m trying to see what BB sees. The carpet in the living room is old green. I don’t see a pool table.
“Shut up!” BB’s mom yells at us from the couch. Her Dolly Parton music is loud. I know it’s Dolly Parton music because BB told me. I’m trying to remember all the singers everybody here knows.
“Mom doesn’t like it when I talk pool.”
“Probably makes her think about yer Da.”
“O probably makes her think about yer Da, so it does.” BB’s mom makes fun of my Irish accent. Everybody here loves to try on my accent when they’re being mean, “Y’all drivin me crazy talkin’ billiards in here like a couple of day-drunks. Get outside and play like normal kids.”
We walk outside into the bright hot. It makes me feel like I’m under a microscope and bigger things are staring down at me. In Ireland you’re under grey and green so much that mom says everything forgets about you. I don’t know why she thinks being remembered is better. I don’t know why she thinks the bright hot is better.
BB takes me to Snipers for the fifth time this week and that’s ok. Daniel R. and Chris S. haven’t beaten me up and thrown my shoes over the fence for a whole week. We sneak into the pool hall. This is what they tell me fun is, but I’m scared. They told me driving was fun, but when Mom’s friend, Wayne, let me turn the steering wheel, I was scared too. They told me baseball was fun, but I was scared of throwing the ball to the wrong place and that’s exactly what I did, and Daniel R. punched me in the head. I don’t think I’m gonna find anything that’s fun.
BB’s Da is at the bar. He’s asleep in something somebody spilt. The bar is trying to pretend it’s dark but too much bright hot is inside. It smells like train station and leftover candy. BB shakes him, “Dad, wake up. Let’s play a game.”
“Chuck! Chuck! I can’t have kids in here,” the bartender yells.
“I gotta show the kid I’m good at something while he’s still interested,” BB’s Da yells at everybody. Some of them laugh. “He’ll turn on me once he turns ten or so.”
“I am ten, Dad.”
Everybody at the bar laughs.
BB and his Da don’t talk to me, but they don’t tell me to go away either. I watch BB’s Da teach him pool. BB’s not big enough to do the things his Da shows him. His Da says, “Just practice hittin the cue ball true, Bartlebee.” BB looks to see if I heard his real name. I don’t move my face. BB goes back to playing pool, “If you can hit the cue ball slow and straight ten times in a row, no one will ever beat you. Nine Ball, Eight Ball knock ‘em down fast…”
“Walk out with your balls and a pocket full of cash.” BB and I finish the joke his Da taught us. It’s not as funny as BB still thinks it is. His Da goes to the bar and BB tries real hard to hit the cue ball. I feel like I shouldn’t be in here with all the sleepy grown up stuff. I feel like I shouldn’t be in Arkansas with all the awake grown up stuff. Arkansas doesn’t sound like the word looks but the people in Arkansas sound exactly how they look. That’s why they like to try on my accent and be mean.
BB’s done practicing and begs his Da to play, “Come on, Dad! One game. I’m better. I can beat you now.”
“Alright, not so loud. One game.”
“You gotta play one-handed.”
BB’s Da looks so tired. Why doesn’t he just go home and sleep? He’s good at pool. He makes the balls bounce of the sides and spin and go in a bunch of different pockets. BB yells stuff like, “Whoa!” every time his Da does something cool. BB gets really mad when he misses his own shots. He got really mad yesterday cause I asked to play and that made his Da go back to the bar for a long time.
The bright hot is moving somewhere else. BB’s Dad makes us leave. We walk to my house because my mom cooks things and BB’s Mom doesn’t. BB’s my friend cause he doesn’t make me take the shortcut through the graveyard when it’s dark outside. Mom taught me this poem about a black cat that stares at the moon. I’m supposed to say the poem at night so I won’t be scared.
We walk down a bike path. The bikes told the grass not to grow on the path anymore. Big bikes that all the bullies get for Christmas. They have the best colors like comic-book-hero red and night-ninja purple and killer-shark blue. Me and the grass are plain Irish green and we gotta do what bright things say. Daniel R. and Chris S. are riding their bikes in the not grass. “Fuck,” I say but BB doesn’t notice. He looks like he’s not afraid. How do I look like that?
Shelby and Tonya from Social Studies are on the bike path too. That means Daniel R. and Chris S. will hit me more.
“Topa da morning, McShitty.”
“Is Fartlebee gonna protect you, Mcshitty?”
“Hey, Fartlebee. How drunk was your dad today?”
“I saw him throwin’ up on himself at the bus station.”
BB gets mad like when he misses a pool shot and tackles Daniel R. Chris S. tries to pull BB off Daniel. I do what BB did and tackle Chris S. When I land on top of him, he knees me in the balls and I can’t think. My knee does the same back to Chris S. without me telling it to. It hurts weird. Chris S. needs a break too. Then Daniel R. picks Chris S. up and they run away. Daniel R.’s face has blood all over it, but I can still tell that he’s crying. BB’s crying too, but he’s not hurt. I pick him up and tell him, “I’m pretty sure Mom made pot roast fer dinner.”
Mom’s friend, Wayne, is now Mom’s husband, Wayne. He had to open an Irish Tavern in Arkansas that he had promised mom in an Irish Tavern in Ireland six years ago. Mom runs the place, and I’m old enough to work there sometimes bussing glasses and cleaning. Mom lets me stay home when I make up a big homework story.
My big homework story lets me have the house computer and internet to myself even if Wayne says he likes to keep the phone line open in case somebody calls. I’m better at computer than Mom and Wayne because I’m not trying to understand it like a car. Old people only look for answers. I make AOL dial-up. It sounds like a digital yodeler trapped in a compuniverse. I get panic lonely.
“Rory, BB’s here,” Wayne calls in from the living room. Mom won’t let me hang out with BB until he decides to go back to school. He says he’s not going back, but there’s nothing else for him to do.
“Here’s five bucks. Why don’t y’all go to the movies or something?” Wayne knows I’m not allowed to hang out with BB, but being stuck with a fifteen year old most nights while his wife works at a bar he’s barely managed to lease, is not what he had in mind when he made big promises to a pretty Dublin bar maid with a hungry little kid desperate enough to take a gamble.
Arkansas nights sweat real thick. The dark air misses the bright hot and promises to keep people uncomfortable until the bright hot comes back in the morning.
“I bet I can turn those five bucks into fifty.”
I feel nervous all the time and so does the air. “I don’t have it in me to watch you hustle.”
“I haven’t lost in two weeks.”
“I’m not doin this with you anymore.”
“Doin what with me?”
“Watch you scam and worry about you getting your ass kicked. Let’s just go to a movie.”
“…Rory, I’m leavin.”
“No, I’m leaving Arkansas.” I see his head turn into a crystal ball of tragedy. “Monday, when Mom’s at work, I’m leaving.
“A postcard from yer Da last year doesn’t mean he’s in Biloxi.”
“They got pool tournaments.”
“BB, you’re not good enough to win pool tournaments. Someone’s gonna crack your head open if you try to cheat like you do here.”
We walk down a blank street with a blank future and blank minds. I hope it stays blank. I give him a, “Nine Ball Eight Ball knock ‘em down fast…” And he throws back a half-hearted punchline cause I’m his friend. I know I’ve pissed him off.
“I gotta go.”
Letting him walk away with my words is the best chance they’ll have at sinking in.
The town square is the same movie-set layout that all small apple pie towns are supposed to have. I’m supposed to have an idea of what to do to protect BB, but I don’t. Since I don’t, I convince my gut that everything’s fine like this country’s neatly folded Church Streets and Main Streets and Broadways and I’m doubling back over the creases when I see BB down the way staring at the hardware store. It’s the last place he saw his Da when he took BB there to pick out a birthday present. BB picked out a mussel shucking knife making his dad promise to take him fishing for ‘em. But his Dad bought him a Swiss Army knife saying it’s better.
BB jerks away from the hardware store and heads toward the graveyard. That’s his shortcut to Snipers. I tail him. The dusty lamplight the town wears immediately turns into serial killer Halloween at the graveyard. I’m not supposed to be scared of it anymore, but I find myself reciting my mom’s Cat and the Moon poem, “Minnaloushe runs in the grass / Lifting his delicate feet. / Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? / When two close kindred meet.” Mom says us Irish are more connected to the other side. That’s gotta be why I’m scared all the time. BB’s more connected to this side. That’s why I’m following him through this nightmare nursery rhyme with tombstones popping up like jagged teeth trying to swallow me.
I make it out of the graveyard a little too quickly, but BB’s already inside Snipers. The burnt-out neon sign is the only thing that makes the cinderblock walls of Snipers look different from a jail cell. The bartender jokes about his life behind bars. It’s the same bartender who lets BB in Snipers like it’s some favor to BB’s Da. There’s a window by the parking lot where I can keep on eye BB.
I’m watching BB talk some old guy into playing him. BB takes the first game. By the fifth or sixth game, BB’s getting frustrated and the old guy’s getting good. When BB misses a shot, he looks like ten-year-old BB getting real mad. The old guy wins one and BB yells, “Goddamnit,” way too loud.
The old guy tells him, “Listen, kid, you ain’t no pool shark. Your dad was no pool shark. Stop fuckin around here.”
BB fires back, “I took fifty bucks off ya last week and now you’re talkin to me like I’m dog shit.” The old guy gets distracted by a joke over at the bar and BB attacks the old guy’s drink with the quickness of a spy movie. BB pulls out some kind of dropper, squirts it in the old guy’s drink, and goes on shit talking, “Don’t walk away, ol man. One more game, and I get outta here.
A better idea jumps in my head and I do it before I convince myself not to. I go around kicking every car in the parking lot until an alarm goes off. Then I sprint through this other country to BB’s Mom’s house hoping the car alarm is enough to keep BB away from himself.
BB’s Mom is singing loud to the living room wall. She gets up real close to it because when she does the Fleur de Lis wallpaper turns into a massive audience, and BB’s Mom turns into Sharon the Country Star and that wine she’s spilling on the older green carpet turns into a crowd pleasing toast that some roadie will mop up later. I don’t want to burst this bubble. I don’t want to rat out my friend. But I don’t want the other. Cause I’m more connected to the other.
BB’s Mom is rehearsing her anger into sentences. I feel like I’m in the principal’s office. BB crunches up the gravel driveway and BB’s Mom is out the door like a dog after a squirrel. “You ain’t goin anywhere!” BB let’s her drag him in the house like he’s not a foot taller than her. “You’re being a shithead just like your father. At least finish high school.”
He starts ignoring her and starts at me, “Goddamnit, Rory.”
“I’m not gonna let you go off and get yourself killed.”
“Killed? Jesus, both of you, shut up!” We stop. He stops because he didn’t expect us to stop. The house with its fifteen-year-old appliances and thrift store furniture looks beautiful in this split second. Like everything is supposed to be here so perfectly. “It doesn’t even occur to you both that I actually know what I’m doing? That I’m actually a shark and not some fifteen-year-old dumbass.”
“It doesn’t even occur to you that you’re fuckin wrong. Your Dad never thought he was wrong.”
“Cause you blamed him for everything!” BB and his Mom feel comfortable enough to argue honestly around me. I feel family. In Arkansas, I feel family. More than Mom can get from Wayne. I need to be more family to my Mom.
“You’re windin up just like him.”
“Cause you tell me everything I do is wrong?” I see BB soak his next words in a flammable amount of sarcasm, “What did you expect, Sharon?” No Mom likes their first name from someone they carried and birthed.
“You ungrateful little shi-”
“Alright now!” I referee because I feel family, “Let’s not go down this road. BB, it’s simple. Just don’t go. Stay here. Finish high-”
“And stop that bullshit hustling. You’re a cheat just like your fuckin fath-”
“D’ya want him to walk out the door right now? Let me talk to him.”
BB’s mom leaves the room. BB lets the air out of his tires and asks by telling, “No one can cut you like your mother.”
“You got in a few slashes yourself.”
“…Brother, I’m goin. I need somethin.”
“…Nah, I just need somethin… Keep an eye on her.”
“Please don’t go.”
“You don’t need me as much as ya think you do… I’ll come back in after a while.”
My back feels like it’s fifty-five when it’s supposed to feel thirty. Playing this daily game of Walk-in Fridge Tetris is bending my age. Shuffling around cases of beer, wine, syrups, limes, olives, kegs, buckets of cole slaw, soaking potatoes, ground beef, chicken fillets, produce, cheese, new stuffs, passable stuffs, expired stuffs. How did I let my mom do this for so long? Why wouldn’t she let her employees do this? Why am I not letting my employees do this? Am I making up for leaving her in Arkansas for all those years of aloof soul searching (peripheral BB searching), backpack countries, connect-the-dots hostels, odd jobs, ESL teaching, making me spread thin and confused rather than strong and clear? Wayne had skipped town two years before Mom told me or before I asked or before I heard her say under all those, I’m Fine’s and Okay’s and I’m Doin Alright’s, “Come Home.”
I don’t know how she managed to keep the bar open. Sometimes I find little clues that at one point she had to be living in the basement office by the Walk-in. I found a dusty scrunchy and an Agatha Christie novel under files of old credit card receipts. I found a pair of glasses with the same frame style she’s insisted on wearing for the past twenty years fallen behind the safe. In a forgotten lost and found box, I found a bathroom bag with her go-to’s: L’Oreal make-up things, an unused quarter Oz. bottle of Chanel No. 5 that Wayne bought her one year but she never found an occasion worth “wasting” it on.
I clean the bathrooms and mop the floors and stock the fridge because I need to penance my way back to family. My penance keeps the bar in business. My penance keeps my mom in an apartment. My penance keeps my soul from being so disgusted with me it runs away. BB doesn’t need penance. “BB doesn’t…” is a mantra that I’ve used over the years to counter my instincts. BB doesn’t feel bad about leaving his mom. I check in on her because of penance. BB doesn’t…
I hear someone walking around. I forgot to lock the door. I’m open. The bar is not. I’m unlocked. The bar is too. “Hey guy, we open up at 4:30.”
“Aww, give us drink then, Rory.” The shadow is mocking my accent.
The family person turned memory turned idea turned mantra walks closer to me and the bright hot breaks through the bar to show a face scar, long hair skirting a bald head, a limp in the right leg, a shirt advertising a twelve-year-old campaign ticket, melted shoes, tired jeans. It hurts to see. Somehow, I expected worse. I want to hug him. I want to hug all that I forgot; all that I don’t know; all that never happened.
“Jesus, BB ya look…”
“No… You look like yer Da.”
“…Heard ya took over the place for your Mom.”
“Haven’t run it into the ground yet.”
We pause and wait for the light to make us friends again, “Nine Ball Eight down ‘em all fast…”
I hug him instead of the punchline. It’s instinct.
“How ‘bout a beer old buddy?”
I go to pour him one and I don’t want to know why I feel better to have a bar between us.
“Where’s the pool table?”
“Well, why the hell not?”
“No room. Too expensive. Where the hell you been the past fifteen years?”
“Fucking everywhere, Rory. Everywhere.”
The light in the bar changed like a mood ring. “Ever find your Da?”
“I did not… I did find out he took a header off some bridge in a borrowed Honda Civic.”
“BB, I’m sor-”
“The other things I could’ve found smelled worse than that…”
“Win any pool tournaments?”
BB gives me a look like I don’t know him at all. His face scar scolds me for saying something so insensitive. He drinks and stares into his beer until the hurt fades. That’s beer’s job. I stare into my beer like a crystal ball looking for a right thing to say, “I haven’t won any pool tournaments either.” He laughs a bit. Humor, when in doubt, always humor.
“You find out anything good since I last seen ya?”
The bar turns into a stage with the lighting all dreamy and vague… makes it easier to be honest. “Sure fucking didn’t.”
It’s about 11PM and BB’s still posted up at the bar slapping people on the back who admit to remembering him. Alex, my bartender, is patient. I keep telling him, That’s my old friend; I got his drinks; I’ll get him to calm down; I’m sorry; Here’s an extra fifty for tips. Alex keeps telling me not to worry about it.
Right before BB says something, I get giddy. My buddy’s back. My best friend. I wanna get drunk with him. Joke with him. Hang out with him. Hang out with myself. Hang out with our before. But then BB says words that I don’t want to be a part of.
“Rory, a fuckin round of shots. You, me, and this fucker! Can you believe it? It’s fuckin’ Chris. You remember when we kicked this guy’s ass?”
Chris signals that he doesn’t want a shot and makes up an excuse to leave. “BB you can’t be in here scaring people off.”
“You begged me to scare that fucker off when we’s little.”
“We’re not kids.” BB leans in and I know what he’s gonna ask.
“Rory, I need a job.”
If you would’ve told young Rory that he’d be working with BB when he grew up, he’d have flipped. And thinking about it now makes me want to agree. BB used to bring fun and fearlessness to my life, “What are you thinking?”
“I dunno pour beers, clean glasses… You’re Irish and ya got some Latin folks workin here. Why not add a red-blooded American to the roster?”
“It’s an Irish pub.”
“Well, Top O da Mornin, pradees and pig shit. I just need a job, brother… Please.” Ten-year-old BB was behind that Please. I missed him.
“You gotta be respectful of the other workers. No Yippee-Ki-Yay-they-took-our-jobs bullshit.”
It’s BB’s first day of work and I walk over to his Mom’s house. Why am I making sure he gets to work on time? BB’s Mom answers the door and she says it best, “Well, ain’t this a time fuck.”
“You glad to have him back?”
“I’m happy he’s alive, but jury’s still out on havin him back… Don’t let him push you around. Make him work.”
BB’s Mom looks squeezed with years of stress and hurt. I will look like that. BB comes to the door, “Ready to go, boss.”
He does the things I ask him to do. We clean, handle deliveries, set up the bar. “Brother, you got plenty of space for a pool table.”
“I can getchya a real good table… cheap.”
“I’ll think about it.” What I’m thinking about is the week’s cash-drops in the safe. If I should take them to the bank daily until… Best not to finish that thought.
We get through most of the night and I’m impressed. BB hasn’t asked for any drinks and as far as I can tell he hasn’t snuck any either. He does what Alex and the barback, Oscar, ask him to do. It’s time for me to leave. Leave him here. Without me. I don’t want to leave until I trust him, but I’m not gonna trust him unless I leave.
At home I don’t sleep. I can’t follow any TV shows cause I keep checking my phone waiting for a bad text from Alex or Oscar. It doesn’t come.
BB got a bit lax over two weeks of regular shifts, but it wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be: I thought he’d be pourin shots for the whole bar daring people to out drink him, but towards the end of his shift he’d pour himself a beer and lean into a conversation with a costumer; I thought he’d purposely botch tasks while mumbling Republican talking points, but when I or any of the other employees asked him to do something, he’d slowly do it without complaining; I thought he’d stay at the bar drinking everything and screaming along with the sound system in a nightly race between sun-up and him passing out on a booth, but when it was time to go, he closed up and went home.
On Fridays we have a shift together. Just him and me. This Friday I’m walking to work and there’s a full-moon feeling hanging over where I’m headed. Yeats wrote that poem about Minnaloushe, the black cat who stares at the moon. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? No, I don’t. I just wanna get through the night.
“Look what the cat dragged in?” BB beat me to work.
“Ya aimin’ fer employee of the month?”
“Two-hundred-dollar prize, right?”
“Check’s in the mail.” The fog in my stomach lifts. The full moon over the future wanes. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? Well, maybe, as long as nobody’s recording or nothin.
I’m not working. I’m not doing penance. It feels wrong to say it, but I am having fun. “Four Five Six!”
“We push three times and this fucker rolls a Four Five Six.”
I never win. I never play. Perfect amount of people. Not too slow so that there’s no energy in the room. Not too crowded, either. So, BB and a couple patrons teach me how to play Cee-Lo. I am one of the guys. The group. I am included… cause of BB. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? Fuck yeah, with everybody watching. I crank up a Springsteen song for our voices to squawk along with and right before the chorus a fucking cowboy walks in the bar looking for somewhere to put his anger.
The Tex in Texarkana likes to muscle the other letters around. Texas attitudes in Arkansas are no different. I’m no good at diffusing fights. That’s not an ideal deficiency to have as a bar owner. In fact, I’m shaking, but I’m used to shaking which I tell myself is a step up. BB gets out in front of the situation. His body doesn’t know how to shake, “How ya doin, buddy?”
“You a doctor?”
“Start my residency this fall.”
“Smart ass.” The cowboy’s shirt is too clean. His boots aren’t broken in. His hat is only bent the way it’s supposed to. The order in his look is craving some chaos.
BB gives a bit of game to draw him off the ledge, “Wanna beer, sugar?”
“I’m at a bar ain’t I?”
“Buddy, you ain’t gotta kiss my ass, but this decorum has gotta change if you wanna post up here.”
“You gonna make me?”
“Clock it! What was that twenty seconds? We’re all bettin on how long it’d take for you to start a fight. Now listen, this is my best good buddy’s bar and I don’t wanna start kickin up shit. Here’s a beer. On me. Take a load off and let’s have a good time, partner.”
Cowboy stares at the beer. BB asks, “Know any jokes?” Then he shouts down the bar, “Hey Eric, what was that one about the—” BB’s momentary glance at Eric distracts him from noticing Cowboy grabbing his beer bottle like a hammer. I can see how BB got the scar on his face. I can see how he got eaten up and spit out for fifteen years without me. I wasn’t there to help him. I wasn’t there to jump in front of people like I find myself doing right now without thinking…without feeling. Blank. Clear. Diving over the bar and latching on to Cowboy’s arm mid-swing. Then we’re all on the ground flailing and punching. Getting punched is so much easier to deal with than getting anxious about a fight.
Bar stools crack over bones. Beer mugs scream and crash. Light bulbs pop and sparkle. It’s Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” It’s the symphony of chaos ordered, years smushed into seconds, tanks of water squeezed into drops as we flush Cowboy outside and shoo him away. The moon’s staring at me now. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? What do you think, baby?
The damage is less than the symphony made it out to be. A couple sweeps of the broom, an improvised lighting fixture, a few salvaged barstools, a dumpster with a full belly and the memory is forgotten. The fear is forgotten. Had I ever been scared before?
Shots, beers, cash, games, hours, family, fun. “Dancing is fun when you let yourself do it. Fun Fridays. Friday fun. Eight ball, nine balls knocking around fast…”
“Holy shit. Rory’s drunk. I gotchya there, buddy. I’m puttin’ ya in a cab.”
“Buh… But we gotta…We gotta close up.”
“I got it.”
“Cab home with your balls and a pocket full of cash.”
I wake up to four missed calls and a dozen texts from Alex. I swim to the bar through my hangover, through the bright hot, through a hundred worst-case scenarios.
The bar is destroyed. Alex and I obstacle course our way around all the barstools busted, all the bottles shattered, all the glasses crushed. We scale down to the basement. The Walk-in Fridge is untouched. The office is indifferent except for the safe which is open and empty.
I don’t have the ideas to excuse an empty safe. I tell Alex, “There was this cowboy we kicked out of the bar last night. He must’ve come back.”
Alex gives me a sympathetic look, “You want me to call the cops?”
I call BB’s Mom, “Is BB ok? The bar got robbed last night?”
“He’s out gettin groceries. Didn’t look any worse than he always does.”
I look at the security videos. I see an empty bar with BB air guitaring, singing, and chugging. This goes on for a while. Then he seems to be laughing. Then he seems to be crying. Then he’s definitely sobbing. He finishes a bottle. He takes a loose barstool and pulls a leg off of it. He’s talking to nobody, but I know he’s talking to his Da. He starts playing an imaginary game of pool with the barstool leg and some limes. He asks his Da to watch him. He shoots another lime and it rolls off the bar under the fridge. I see ten-year-old BB get real mad that he missed a shot. He snaps. Throws a barstool at a shelf of liquor. Smashes all the pint glasses. Screams so hard it makes me tear up. He looks around and panics. The office camera shows him going into the safe. I knew he’d clock the safe code watching someone else closing up. He leaves the safe open. He leaves the bar unlocked. He doesn’t come back.
After the video, the cameras switch to live screen and there’s a guy I don’t know walking through the wreckage. Alex and I go out to meet him.
“Wheeewweee, what the fuck happened here?”
“Who are you?”
“BB came by my place about five this mornin and paid me to haul over my old pool table… I can get the legs, but y’all need to help me get the slate outta the truck.”
“All sales are final, now.”
BB wasn’t at the grocery store. He wasn’t at the bus station. And after waiting with his Mom all day, he wasn’t home. “I bet you’re pissed,” BB’s mom said. But the idea of anger wasn’t with me. I missed him. The bar was a place, a machine, a thing that could be re-thing’d. BB was a family that was gone, unreachable, hiding. That was the hardest part. I walked home in the dark. Out of respect, the moon didn’t look at me. Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? Not without my buddy.
When BB’s Mom got cancer, she asked me to find BB… I didn’t. I didn’t find him because I didn’t look. I didn’t scour internets. I didn’t call the IRS. I didn’t search collection agencies. BB had to be dead. Confirming that was something his mom couldn’t handle.
I did bring my Mom over to spend time with her. It didn’t take. I was treating both of them like ideas. BB’s Mom told me, “You don’t need to drag your poor mama over here so we can stare at each other. It ain’t gonna make me feel better about dying.”
I did buy BB’s Mom some country CD’s and a new boom box to make her feel better about dying. I did bring over burgers and chicken caesar salads and shepherd's pies that she couldn’t eat to make her feel better about dying. I did tell her that my searches hadn’t turned up BB yet, “Welp, he’s probably dead,” she said as if I had just told a customer we’re out of the beer they ordered.
I spent so much energy not looking. BB’s mom died. Her last words were, “If he ain’t dead, tell him not to worry about it,” followed by the chorus of a country song she used to sing to the audience in the wall, “Just tryin to be somebody / I wanna be heard and seen / Chasin that Neon Rainbow / Living that Honky Tonk dream.”
I fell down a hole of worser and worser. I didn’t look for BB. I paid for BB’s mom’s cremation. I paid for a nice cherrywood box to keep her remains. Brief waves of panic sleep ground my molars to nubs. I didn’t find BB. He found me.
There’s a knock at my door. I open it. The day has a fever, 104 degrees. The bright hot likes to make hard days harder. I can’t move. BB throws up a white flag, “Nine ball, Eight ball knock ‘em down fast…”
I can’t say anything. I hate myself hard. He finishes his own punchline, “See an ol’ buddy so he can kick you in the ass.”
BB’s getting skinnier, frailer in middle age. He looks weak from exhausted mistakes he can’t help but repeat year after year, month after month week after week. He hugs me like I want to hug him. “Rory, I’m sorry. I understand if you’re angry…Thanks for takin care of all mom’s stuff.”
My engine falls out.
“I’m… Goddamn, I’m so fucking sorry… I’m so fucking ssss…” My tongue can’t lasso any words.
“Whoa, brother, whoa. I don’t got, ya.” My knees fail and BB can’t hold me up. I fall on the ground like soap opera faint. I stay down and tell the brick steps, “I didn’t look for you. Your mom asked me to, but I didn’t want to know if… I kept putting it off and putting it off.”
BB doesn’t say anything until I get up. He stares at me for a minute. His face is numb. I see anger behind it. “You scared that I’m mad?”
“Of course.” We stay outside because the bright hot talks between our sentences.
BB’s face figures life out so I can know things, “I’ve been scared that you were mad.”
I search my humor files, my sincere files, my improv files. I can’t find anything to say but our default, “Nine ball, Eight ball knock ‘em down fast.”
“Ruin your life cause you’re too afraid to ask.”
We walk into my house together.
“I’m gonna sell mom’s house.”
The idea is vertigo inside my head, “You’re not gonna stay?”
“I need the cash.”
I have another truth to avoid, “Can we talk about that later?”
I’ve put together a little ceremony at the bar for BB’s mom. BB follows me in, but he’s cautious like a movie sidekick. He looks around the time portal and takes stock, “Looks like it did ten years ago.” He’s sweating more than the bright hot needs him to, “Y’all gotta pool table!”
A spark of anger dies quickly on my face. BB sees it and gives me sticky honesty, “It ain’t easy standin inside one of your life’s biggest mistakes.”
I retrieve the box from the office and give him family back, “Here are yer mom’s remains… It’s a cherrywood box.”
“Well, that’s beautiful, Rory. Thank you. Better not to put it on the pool table. She might come alive and beat the shit outta me.”
He hands the box right back to me like it’s searing his hand and goes to the bar. Alex, my loyal bartender and soon to be part owner, has agreed to come in to facilitate the event. BB recognizes him and says, “How ya doin there, pal?”
Alex offers a cautious condolence, “Sorry for your loss.”
I see BB sweat himself skinnier, “Well, thank you… You keep in touch with your folks? Where they at? Mexico or something?”
“Columbia…I bought them a house last year.”
“Well good for you, big guy. Wanna buy my mom’s ol’ place? Hey Rory, how much you payin this real estate mogul over here?”
I join him at the bar, “Same as I paid you.”
Alex pours three shots. BB isn’t ready to cheers anything. So we drink whiskey and hope the dead come alive… like Irishmen.
It’s daytime and the bright hot is reminding us leftovers of its power. The light in the bar is cranky. It isn’t used to playing daytime. The people that are going to show have shown: my Mom, Alex, and two of BB’s Mom’s work friends. One of the work friends won’t talk to BB because of anger. The other seems like she doesn’t talk much to anybody.
BB isn’t ready to say anything. I think he’s gonna run out of sweat and start crying, hose off the bright hot with tears so it’ll quit… so the real will just fucking quit for one goddamn second.
I stand up to say something, so he won’t have to. A bright hot ray shoots through the windows and dares me to sweat tears. I feel like a preacher tasked to speak about the bigger. “Thank you everybody fer coming. My mom and I moved here from Ireland when I was a kid and I had a real hard time making friends. BB and his mom made me feel like I was here. Everyone else would tell me I didn’t belong, but BB and his mom didn’t care whether I belonged or not. They let me stay around them. They let me stay. And that’s what family does. Rest in peace, Sharon.”
BB tries to get up and say something, but he’s deadlifting 300 lbs, “Thanks for that, Rory. Mom loved ya like her own. She was a great woman...I wish my ol’ man had done better by her. I wish I had—”
BB pulls the Emergency Brake. He’s splitting in half. I’ve gotta family quick. I go to the bar’s sound system while telling everyone, “BB’s mom used to listen to Dolly Parton.” I scroll through a playlist and find the song, “And when she’d listen to “Jolene” she’d have this real mischievous smile on her face. And I ask her once, ‘What’s there to smile about? The singer’s begging Jolene not to take her man?’ And she says to me, ‘Cause I’m Jolene.’”
BB runs out into the bright hot. He crawls by the dumpster. Tears and words slobber out of his face, “I’m so fucking sorry.” Everybody leaves including the bright hot. Alex takes my Mom home. I put BB’s box of Mom back in the office. I watch him through the security video like I watched him play pool with his Da; like I watched him cheat in pool; like I watched him play pool with his Da again in a broken bar. He’s doing big throw-up, heaving sobs. I let him purge the years, the mistakes, the misfires, the nots, the almost’s, the never’s, the forever’s, the want’s, and the now’s.
I go get my family. The dumpster is blue like new bike. No rust because I clean it like my Mom cleaned it. BB’s done washing it. I tell him, “Everybody’s gone.” I lift my injured teammate up and carry him to the sideline.
The bar turns into a stage with the lighting all dreamy and vague… makes it easier to be honest. “BB, I want you stay. Don’t sell yer mom’s house. Live in it. Work here. Just stay.”
“I don’t belong here, Rory.”
“That doesn’t matter. Just stay.”
“What if I lose it and rough up the place again.”
“You’re older. Ya might do it say…two more times, but you’ve never tried losing it then staying. That’s the remedy.”
“I’ll play you fer it. One game. I win, you stay. You win… do whatever you want.”
“Nine ball, eight ball knock em down fast.”
“Keep yer friend here so he won’t be out on his ass… Now you gotta play one-handed, ok?”
BB lets me sink a few and recognizes the effort, “You’re better than I remember.”
“The trick is lookin where you’re hittin… not at the cue ball.”
He likes that I remember his dad’s motto and lines up a sure miss.