by Martha Clarkson
Jack hovered over a corner pocket of the pool table in the back of Hadley’s Pub, flicking his long bangs to the side, waiting to see if his ex-girlfriend, Krista, could sink a bank shot. It was mid-October and the day had been sunny off and on, but not warm (no one who lived on the coast expected warm, at this time of year) and the small tourist towns were randomly populated without the summer crowds, though Jack could feel the weekend spiking up with the one-and-two-nighters from Portland. It was after six, last he looked, an hour later than the deadline he’d given himself to leave for his date with Lilly, the new kindergarten teacher in Arch Cape. In the gravel parking lot was his wrinkled Corolla, the trunk loaded with a cooler of Dungeness crabs for their dinner. He was drinking his fifth beer, three more than the limit he set for himself an hour ago, this time a local porter from Rasputin Brewery called Driveway Bunny. Krista was lining up the shot carefully, like she’d never done when they were dating and had come to Hadley’s to play pool. Even worse, she was making almost all of these carefully scoped shots, as if she’d been studying with The Hustler himself.
She’d broken off their relationship two months ago, after half a year spent either crammed in her almost-double bed under the eaves of her tiny Warrenton studio, or here at Hadley’s, downing local brews on the stools at the bar and playing pool. She’d been a good sport all those times, listening intently to him as he coached her on angles, English, topspin, and losing every game with several balls left on the table.
In addition to the pool, Jack fancied himself a beer aficionado, so while his former classmates from Astoria High School might automatically order cans of Bud or Kokanee, Jack distinguished himself by knowing local brews and experimenting with the rotating taps. He even brewed at home; right then in fact he had a vat going on the mud porch and it filled the whole apartment with the sour smell of wheat. This latest batch was going to be named Blind Ox IPA, and Jack already had in mind the label design of a big bull in sunglasses.
“I hate to be a damp rag,” was what Krista had said that night in August, and for a second he thought she was talking about something to do with her period, as she often did, even though Jack never wanted to hear or see anything to do with that unfortunate occurrence. “But I’m going home now and we shouldn’t see each other.” She was halfway through one of his home brews, Albino Blonde, and he was on his fourth. By the door, her red duffel was crisply zipped, waiting to go.
From instinct rather than from listening, Jack said, “You mean ‘wet blanket,’ right?”
“Jack, did you hear me? Are you in there, Jack-o?” She knocked her fist on the side of his head. Jack hated it when she did that. “I said, we need to cool this off. I think we should break up.” Through the fog of the Albinos, and the shot of whiskey he’d had before she arrived, her words finally sunk in. He managed to lift himself up off the futon sofa and see her out, where their equal, medium heights forced eye contact as he leaned on the knob of the open door.
Things had changed between them since he’d lost his job. He’d been employed by the parks department, mowing the lawn around the Astoria Column, and he’d lost the job just trying to be helpful, turning off his mower and popping out the orange ear plugs in response to the waving arms of a large mother in pink sweats, her three kids straggling behind her. Their old VW bus wouldn’t start and Jack had offered the jumper cables in the city’s pick-up. But then he remembered the pick-up was parked at the water hut, a long way down the hill. It took him a good ten minutes to walk down there, only to find the cables were missing. Already he’d broken two rules – offering to jump someone’s car (he was supposed to call a tow truck) and leaving his equipment untended (mower), where any frisky child or vengeful teenager could wreak havoc. When he finally got back up to her, empty-handed, he offered to push-start the bus down the hill. There was enough of an unfavorable incline that she had to help him push it forward the first twenty feet, in order to reach the downward slope. She stuffed the three children in the back without seat belts and they choreographed when the pushing would start and the timing of him jumping in behind the wheel.
“All aboard?” he’d shouted from the front, like he was about to blow the whistle on a steam locomotive.
Even though she was short and out of shape, weak she was not; she pushed the back of the van with more muscle than Jack imagined, and the car slid ahead of him too fast, the door jamb slipping away from his grip, the back tires lipping the last of the hump and rolling the car off target – up a curb and into an old-growth cedar. It was enough impact to not only crumple the front end, but to also change the shape of the dashboard inside. Whoops of hilarity came from the backseat floor, where two of the kids had rolled. Behind Jack in the middle of the parking lot, the pink mother shrieked, “That’s a vintage vehicle, you, you, mowing moron!” The column-climbing tourists closed in on the commotion.
Finding a new job was not easy in the gaunt off-season. The towns were dried up of tourists. The short, sodden days of winter were about to sock in. He wanted a city job, with the benefits and status it brought, but Warrenton, Seaside, and Ilwaco had all turned him down. Inquiring about a Gearhart posting for a sewer manager, the woman behind the desk said, “Aren’t you the one who crashed some lady’s bus up at the column?” So he’d been making beer, drinking beer, and occasionally helping his friend Stu by sweeping up his metal shop on the days his ‘boy’ was off.
Once he lost his job, Krista had complained he was going nowhere and when was he going to get located. Her with her smarty-pants job cutting hair in downtown Astoria. He’d texted and called her, ever since she walked out that night, with no response. Of course the night of Xtaca shooters and her cousin Lucy didn’t help things any. Jack tried to forget the sound of the door knob turning when Krista had found them in the den at Stu’s party – TV muted and Lucy’s shirt up. Now, here he was, watching her sink the 2 ball, on an amazing shot that could’ve made ESPN Sports Center. Her next shot was an easy set-up on the 3, but the cue ball followed it in the pocket for a scratch, and it was Jack’s turn. “If only I’d put more English on it,” she said, low and to herself, frowning in concentration at the table.
On her forearm was a new tattoo, an armadillo, that Jack imagined must have been hard to execute with the intricate shell pattern, not to mention painful. She had two other tattoos, on her right buttock. Being the only one in Hadley’s who knew about her dragonfly and rose made him feel superior to the five slobs hunched on the bar stools, even though he didn’t like tattoos. The barmaid came by, carrying a wet dishcloth, idly swiping the side counter.
“Another?” she asked, gesturing with the cloth to Jack’s empty glass.
Jack looked at the table. He had five balls on and Krista had three. He didn’t see an obvious shot on any of his striped balls. It would easily take another fifteen minutes to wipe the table clean at this rate. “Sure,” he said. “Another Bunny.”
Krista had her cue stick between her feet, moving it back and forth like a metronome. “I’ll have the seasonal. The Dever-Conner Bitter.”
The waitress twirled her cloth and left to get the beers.
“Since when do you drink a bitter?” Jack said.
Krista smiled, tucking her chin down, in that coy way she had – Faking Shy, was what he called it. “I just do, I like all kinds of beer now,” she said.
Jack regretted ordering the new beer – the Driveway Bunnies were sitting low in his gut and swimming around in his brain, making it difficult to sense time and judge angles. He had to clear this table, though, and show her who was champ, because she’d won the last four games, after his two victories at the outset, and he just didn’t see how this was possible, when she’d never even really liked pool. She'd just played to humor him all those months. And he had to get to his dinner date with Lilly. And what did Krista want from him anyway, come to think of it, texting just after noon, “Hey want to meet me at Had’s today?”
He had typed in an immediate ‘no,’ because he hadn’t eaten lunch and he still had to drive out to Youngs Bay and pick up the two crabs Stu had promised him (for which he’d have to do a couple gratis hours at the shop), drive down to Manzanita to Lilly’s apartment, and he didn’t want to be late. This was his first invitation to her place and he wanted everything to be perfect, since their two dates before this had gone well, meeting halfway in Seaside for dinners and beach walks. Lilly was blonde and fair – he’d never been with a blonde before – and she laughed at his jokes and encouraged him about his second interview for a job at the Gearhart Golf Course. She’d used words like ‘confidence’ and ‘good odds,’ and that made Jack feel like he had a chance at the groundskeeper job.
It would take him at least thirty minutes driving time to get the crabs, assuming Stu had them cooked and cleaned, and then he wanted to shower and dress in his best shirt (probably the green corduroy) and pack up a dinner to impress Lilly, who had told him over Rum Runners that night at House of Chan that she loved crab more than any other food in the world. A fresh, cold Dungeness crab.
Hadley’s Pub was in a historic house, something about an old pioneer who put down stakes from the highway to the ocean and started the first carriage service between Warrenton and Seaside. Through what must have once been the living room windows, the daylight was fading. The waitress brought in the beers, setting each on the counter, beside their separate encampments; Jack’s fleece vest thrown over a stool and his keys on the counter, and at the other end, Krista’s large unstructured purple handbag – more of a tote bag, Jack thought; she could’ve walked out with five Hadley steins.
Jack lined up what he knew to be a fantastical shot banking the 11, but it was the only ball possible to shoot at, and he missed. “Damn,” he said, when it pushed her 7 ball to the rim of a middle pocket, setting up a gimme. He looked over at the dartboard clock above the kitchen order window, the hands made of darts, but the numbers were blurry and he didn’t walk closer to focus, but turned back to the game.
Krista scoped her shot, kneeling down, then up again, deciding. “That Z-bank looks good,” she said, and went back into position, caroming the ball just as she’d predicted, in a Z pattern, landing it in the side pocket. She sunk two more balls, but the fourth shot missed the hole by an inch. She took a long drink of her beer and set the glass down, walking his way. “I am taking care of Whitey, today, that’s for sure,” she said.
“The cat?” he said, foggy on a recollection of her downstairs neighbor’s pet.
“No, silly,” she said. “You know, controlling the cue ball. That’s how they say it, right? Whitey?”
Jack focused on the table, figuring out his next shot. “Sure. Of course. I just didn’t hear you,” he said. Whitey?
He eyed a draw shot to the corner, but before he could fully line up, she said, “Is that a full splice cue stick? I saw one up in Portland last weekend at the Billiards Blitz,” she said.
Jack looked at his cue stick. He didn’t know what a full splice stick was, but he could make an even bet Hadley’s wouldn’t have one. “No,” he said, chancing it. In the distraction of her billiard-hall talk, Jack took a slow swig of his beer, then went back to lining up the shot. The cold brew was stimulating as it coursed its way to his gut, but his shot was off.
Krista walked over to him again, resting her butt on the table’s edge. Jack didn’t want to hear any more of her showy pool talk, so he said, “You know, I can’t stay very much longer. I have a date tonight.”
Her laugh was low and rough, like laryngitis. “Do you, now?” she said. Her eye shadow was bright pink and thick..
“Yeah,” he said. “I do.” He managed to nod without his whole body swaying. Lilly’s face came to mind, her pale skin with the faintest of pink on her cheeks and no other make up, her soft voice that he could imagine working well with five-year-olds.
She moved away from him, then suddenly cast her cue stick in the corner. “Oh, shit!” she said. “I’m late. I gotta go!” She lunged for the purple bag on the counter. Before he could say anything, she disappeared around the partial-height bus station wall. Briefly he saw a flash of the bag whoosh through the front room in the direction of the door, pushing apart the arriving dinner crowd.
Startled, Jack grabbed his keys from the counter. He saw the waitress look at him, also startled, and he knew what she must be thinking, a dine-and-dash of the most obvious variety. “We’ll be back in a sec,” he said, although he had no idea if this was true. The word ‘we’ sounded odd after he said it.
Krista was already out the front door when he ran through the main eating room. The old door’s latch stuck when he tried to push down on it, and in his rush, his frantic clicks were ill-timed, keeping the latch from opening at all. He let go and the door opened from the outside, customers entering and blocking his way. Once they passed him, he ran over the threshold and down the cracked steps, towards the Hadley Motor Inn, built in the seventies between the pub and the ocean, across a service road that fronted on the pub. He saw his car in the lot, and thought briefly of how he should get in it now and head south to Manzanita.
Krista had already run up the path to the motel and through the breezeway between the two one-story buildings. She was standing on a concrete bench belonging to the motel, facing the sunset that was now a magnificent orange blaze.
He shouted at her through cupped hands, key ring dangling off his middle finger. “What are you doing?” He wasn’t surprised at all by her fascination with the sunset. She’d often done things like this before, spur of the moment, and Jack had loved the adventure of it at the time, but now he was impatient. She didn’t acknowledge the shout, and Jack realized the bawl of the ocean must be filling her ears, let alone that there was a great distance between them still, and cars passing in between.
As soon as a bread truck rumbled past, Jack ran across the street, or he tried to, but his legs felt heavy and uncoordinated, like wet logs aimlessly banging together in a slough. He tripped on a parking bumper in the motel’s lot even though he’d seen it, but he didn’t fall. Krista’s outline seemed distant, a familiar but shrunken silhouette against the raging orange sun.
When Jack had steered the Corolla down the gravel drive at Stu’s that afternoon, Stu was tending the crab pot in his green vinyl apron and drinking a beer.
Jack rolled down the window. “What’re you drinking?” Jack said, before even saying hi, the engine still running.
Stu held up a bottle with the label of a Mexican sleeping under a sombrero. “A Poncho Miñata Stout,” he said.
“Never heard of it,” Jack said, killing the motor and opening the door. “But I’ll take one.”
Stu leased fifty feet of bay-front from a Portland lawyer and ran a boat rental business from the dock, sometimes also selling crabs to his customers, when his traps came in full. Next to the boathouse was a small metal shop where Stu welded odd jobs. “Whatdaya need the crabs for anyway?” Stu said. He pulled a Miñata from a bucket of ice on a picnic table and handed it to Jack.
Jack twisted the cap off with his shirttail and took a long swallow from the bottle. “Another date with the new chick,” he said.
“That teacher from San Fran?” Stu said.
Jack could hear Stu’s wife talking on the phone in their small apartment above the garage. Her voice brought to mind crow caws. “Yeah, that’s the one. I’m taking dinner down to her place – crab and beer. I have a few bottles of the Albino Blonde left.”
“You better watch out, man, a city chick like that.” Stu laughed and shook his head, as if Jack was incapable.
“No prob, dude. I think she likes me.”
That was when Krista’s second text had come in, as he sat on a palette stack gulping his beer, watching Stu convince a family to rent a fishing boat. He’d been planning to hang around Stu’s for a while, then drive home to shower and pack up the dinner. Then the second text appeared that started him calculating how to fit in a couple games of pool with Krista. It would be worth a quick stop, to run the table for a few games and see what she wanted.
Now he ran up the path to where she stood mesmerized by the sunset, like the times before when he would normally have wrapped his arms around her from behind and nuzzled in her ear. The air was unusually still, for the coast and for October, and Jack thought of it as early September. But if it had been, sunset would be much later, more like eight or eight-thirty, and he would be way late for his date with Lilly, who didn’t need to hear about this detour to Hadley’s – he would fill in talk of his day with something more innocent.
He recalled Stu’s lack of ice, just barely enough to fill the bottom of the cooler, and crushed ice to boot, which surely must’ve melted before he’d even crossed the bridge at Young’s Bay. His plans to stop at home, to shower and change his shirt, to reload with big cubes from his freezer, were going to be rushed now. He was still in Warrenton and had yet to drive to Manzanita, which would be no mean feat with the curves of Highway 101 and the miles of cliff edges naked of guardrails.
Jack imagined arriving at her apartment as he was now, still in his blue flannel shirt with the button missing, the quarter-sized Ranch dressing stain adorning his pocket flap, full from the two plates of hot wings he’d eaten with Krista. Lilly’s apartment would likely be decorated in a coordinated scheme – say red and black, or orange and yellow – and immaculate, and there he’d be, a cooler of lukewarm water by his side, beer-less, his unwashed hair clinging to his forehead from all the times he’d swept it over as he watched in awe while Krista put away ball after ball with annoyingly complicated shots. He’d have to open the cooler on Lilly’s perfect white counter, drawing up the Dungeness bodies in their unknotted plastic bag, that rancid tide-flat smell overpowering her lemon-scented air – he barely liked crab anyway – and her face, that beautiful face, would fall in disappointment. Throughout the evening there would be sprinkled comments about his inability to bring to bear such a simple thing as a crab dinner, right here on the coast, no less.
He walked slowly up the sloped path to the front of the motel towards Krista, because slowly was easier and steadier, and she wasn’t going anywhere. Two of the motel doors on the parking lot opened and guests exited. They were old and bent, his grandparent’s age, and he could hear their cooing about the sunset. One used a cane. They seemed to know each other and walked across the parking lot to a side patio on the left, where white plastic chairs were in random placement on a concrete pad.
Coming around the last curve of the path, he was blinded by the intensity of the fierce sunlight in its final brazen show of the day. Dark spots pulsed in his vision, and he could barely make out the darkness of Krista’s silhouette. He was reminded of his third grade teacher’s warning about blindness, passing out strips of negative film to use as eye shields as they viewed the sun from the playground.
Jack blinked and squeezed his eyes, but the dots continued their dance as he swayed in place from the ale. A new silhouette appeared to Krista’s left and Jack saw that it was not another grandma toddling out to share her admiration for nature. This was someone tall and male and unbent by old age. He waited for another person to accompany the stranger, but no one followed. Jack saw Krista’s familiar profile – the prominent nose, the bopping ponytail – as she turned to him. The man wrapped his arms around Krista’s waist as she stood on the bench, and they became one thickened silhouette in Jack’s sun-speared eyes. Her head tilted down and she fluffed his hair. Then they both turned to watch the orange ball in its descent along the sharp line of the horizon.