The Baby Pool

  

The crowd that populated O’Shaughnessy’s on weekday evenings was still several hours from filing in and the stools that faced the long bar were deserted except for the one occupied by Harlan Mathews. He sat in his usual place, in the last stool at the end, beneath one of the five satellite televisions that hung along the wall above the bar. From this vantage point he could easily switch his attention to any one of a multitude of sporting events without the worry of stretching his neck unnecessarily. His usual place also offered him unobstructed views of Carolyn as she went about her duties preparing for happy hour. Harlan could readily shift his gaze from a sand trap in Palm Springs to the elastic waistband of Carolyn’s underwear as squatted to reach a lower shelf or from a penalty kick in Liverpool to the delicate jiggling of her breasts as she sliced limes.

There were, however, days like today when neither international sporting dramas nor the gentle wonders of Carolyn’s figure held Harlan’s interest. And so, he was left with his last option: studying the varied sports pools hosted by O’Shaughnessy’s. This, he bristled slightly at the thought, involved the more intensive effort of shifting his copious, beer fortified girth and swiveling his barstool 180 degrees. Once repositioned, he could face a large selection of white posterboards hanging on the wall behind him. For each pool there was a separate piece of posterboard on which was drawn, with straightedge and magic marker, a grid of small boxes. The pools were titled with the names of the two competing teams and labeled with the price per box and the payout information.

The less frequent O’Shaughnessy patron might deduce that Harlan Mathews was both a sports aficionado and a shrewd gambler, if the attention he divided between the five screens and the pools was used as the basis for their conclusion. However, closer observation, afforded only to those who visited the bar routinely, would have revealed Harlan’s true depth of knowledge on the subject and his complete ineptness at placing wagers.

Indeed, Harlan possessed only a rudimentary understanding of popular sport. The rules and regulations of the different games crisscrossed in his mind like so many pool grids and the leagues, teams and players were used interchangeably in conversation if he was ever broached on the matter.

Nonetheless, his ignorance never kept him from taking part in nearly every pool and, to the dismay and frustration of other barroom pikers, he often won large sums of money. At $1 dollar a box during normal season and $3-5 during playoff games, Harlan reasoned that he would be a fool not to take a chance. And so, despite the slight aggravation associated with his physical rotation, he felt a sense of satisfaction at the sight of his small HM’s in at least one box on every pool.

Besides the murky, glass panel in O’Shaughnessy’s front door, the only view of the outside was a large window to the right of the entrance. It was a large plate glass affair with “O’Shaughnessy’s Pub” stenciled on it in affected, Celtic font and filled with a few yellowing posters taped to the inside.

The window had captured a stray piece of fading sunlight and shaped it into a trapezoidal column that cut across the bar at an angle. The column came to an end in a weak patch of light that, with the passing of the afternoon, moved along the gambling wall like a spotlight passing over stage actors in slow succession: Patriots v Jets, Bills v Browns, Pitt v Syracuse.

Before last Saturday, the bare, wood paneling where the spotlight was currently resting was home to a betting grid titled “Jody Heck’s Baby Pool”. It was conceived and created by O’Shaughnessy’s manager, Charlie, to collect wagers on the birth date of Jody Heck’s baby. Employed as another of the establishment’s bartenders, Jody Heck, had not been two days into her maternity leave before she was admitted into the hospital, surely to make a winner out of some lucky regular.

One dollar bought a box that corresponded to a day within Jody’s estimated month of delivery. A wild card option was also available for dates falling before or after the month and for an additional four dollars a bettor wrote their name, phone number and the date of their choice on a piece of paper for Charlie to place in an envelope marked “b-pool/w-card”. The boxes sold out fast (indeed, Harlan and Carolyn had purchased four boxes apiece) and the numerous people who were forced to take the wild card option were at least consoled by the guarantee of a larger payout.

Harlan contemplated the bare wood, now the focal point of the dying spotlight, before swiveling back around to face the action above the bar.

“Do you think I can get another one of these beers, Miss Carowins”? Harlan lifted a glass to indicate that he was nearly dry. He took a gulp and wiped his wiry, silver streaked beard with a beefy hand.

Carolyn was already tilting a new frosted mug beneath a tap before Harlan could take his last sip. She placed the fresh drink in front of Harlan and the head frothed down the sides of the glass collecting in a puddle of beer and melting frost around the bottom. Carolyn took the empty and dipped it a few times in a sink hidden under the bar. She placed it upside down to dry on a stainless steel rack beside her cutting board and mounds of citrus slices.

The cold breeze that came in through the bar’s front door carried the odor of wet leaves and car exhaust. It snaked across the floor and wrapped around the small area of exposed skin between the cuffs of Harlan’s pants and the top of his socks. Harlan was busy watching the foamy head on his beer subside and had not bothered to look to see who had brought the draft into the bar until he was standing directly in front of Carolyn and her fruit.

Harlan could see Bill Lippman’s reflection among the rows of liquor bottles in the big mirror behind the bar. He stood shivering with his hands in the pockets of a thin canvas jacket that looked to provide little, if any, insulation against a blustery, fall afternoon. His cheeks and nose, usually flushed from heavy drinking, were the shade that crimson takes just before turning black. His eyes glistened with the same wild character that seemed to have taken possession of his hair and with some effort he managed to retrieve a hand from his jacket to nervously brush it down.

“Charlie in yet?”

Carolyn stood motionless with her eyes fixed on Bill. The knife she was using was halfway through a lemon, which she held in place on the cutting board.

“He’s in the basement. "

“Tell him I want to see him. I want to talk to him.”

Carolyn remained frozen in the same position, poised, as if she might have to pull the knife from the fruit to intercept a crazed attacker. She turned her head with slow caution toward the open trap door built into the floor behind the bar. She called into the black opening and returned her gaze to Bill. His hand had given up on his hair and had returned to the seclusion of his pocket where it could make better use of its nervous energy by balling into a fist and relaxing it again.

Charlie’s boots sounded heavily on the steps below and from the dark hole a head slowly appeared followed by broad shoulders, torso, and thick legs until all of Charlie stood with his back to everyone, holding a new posterboard pool and a roll of tape. The amiable half-smile Charlie usually carried around to offset his formidable, physical appearance vanished at the sight of the newest arrival.

“What do you want, Bill?”

His voice was like an announcement relieving Carolyn of her duties as a statue. Without any noticeable expression she looked back down to the cutting board where her knife was already completing its path through the rest of the lemon.

“You know what I want. I came to collect on the pool that I won.”

“What pool would that be, Bill?” Charlie pushed lightly on the trap door and allowed its own weight to bring it down over the opening with a loud crash and a gust of air. Charlie stepped on what was now part of the floor and covered it with a rubber floor mat.

“You know what pool. Jody Heck’s pool.”

“That pool was cancelled, Bill and all the money it collected went to Jody. If you want your five dollars back so bad, I’ll give you your goddamned five dollars back!”

Carrying the new pool and tape, Charlie walked passed Carolyn and down the length of the bar to where it opened at the far end. He gripped the back of a wooden chair standing below the big window and dragged it along behind him. Bill’s head followed his path and then he turned and walked to where Charlie was preparing to hang the posterboard.

“Now look, Charlie. You know I made the right pick and if the bar gave money to her that’s fine with me but the bar still owes me the payout. Fair’s fair.”

Charlie paid him no mind and positioned the chair beneath the bare wood section on the wall. He lifted a boot onto the seat and tested the chair’s stability before hoisting the rest of himself up. The chair trembled under Charlie’s large frame prompting Carolyn to remind him of the stepladder the bar owned.

Bill glanced at Carolyn and then back up to where Charlie was now struggling with the roll of masking tape while holding the pool between his chin and chest.

“I made the right pick, Charlie. I did. Fair’s fair. If you all don’t want to pay me right here, I’ll take you to court and you can pay me there. You know I have the proof. Everybody knows.”

Charlie slapped a strip of tape on a corner and held the other as he looked down at Bill.

“Yeah? What we all know is what an asshole you are! Your pick wasn’t even a choice so I disqualified it. And I would like to see you stand up in front of a judge and tell him with a straight face what your pick was.”

Charlie turned back to his task. He freed both hands to work more tape off the roll by using an elbow to hold up the loose corner.

Bill stepped back a few paces and kicked violently at the chair like an executioner at a crude hanging. The chair skidded back, its legs scrapping loudly against the tile floor, and it toppled over near the front door. The force sent Charlie’s legs out from under him in the same direction as the chair and he came down head first, connecting with the tile in a dull thump. The new pool hung for a moment from the taped corner before tearing free and fluttering down over top of him.

Bill reeled around and went towards Carolyn who stepped back and away from the edge of the bar. He grabbed Harlan’s empty, drying mug beside her pile of fruit slices, and heaved it into a row of liquor bottles in front of the big mirror. The bottles shattered, sending glass and pungent, brown alcohol in all directions and, as the mug rebounded off its surface, the big mirror blossomed into a cobweb of fractured glass.

*****

Charlie sat at the bar pressing a towel filled with ice to a large bump on his forehead. The beer he had started to drink had made him dizzy and he had pushed the bottle aside. He was trying to decide whether or not he needed the trouble of reporting the incident to the police but this made his head throb even more, so he closed his eyes and allowed himself the luxury of darkness.

Carolyn had cleared the remains of the bottles from the back bar and was now busy picking shards out of the bar mat’s honeycomb pattern. Harlan followed her actions and tried not to concentrate on her pink, elastic, waistband. She stood up, holding a dustpan full of wet, jagged glass and emptied it into the trashcan before exchanging it for a rag. She began wiping up the pool of mixed liquors and drying any surviving bottle. The towel was damp and sticky with a heady mix of bourbon and Irish whiskey and tiny pebbles of glass were snagged to the fabric.

“What a crazy sonofabitch, huh Carowins?”

“Yeah. Crazy and a sonofabitch.”

“You heard from Jody at all?”

“No, Charlie talked to her, though. After she came home.”

“She coming back to work, you think?”

“I don’t know, Harlan. "A thing like that, losing it the way she did. That would be hard on anyone."

“You think she knew about that sonofabitch betting on it the way he did?”

“I know she did. Everybody did. That’s why I wouldn’t blame her if she never stepped foot in her again.”

“You think she thought about it while she was still in the hospital after it all happened?"

Carolyn stopped cleaning and looked at herself in the broken mirror. Her reflection was broken into hundreds of irregular sections and she let out a long, breathy sigh.

“Christ, Harlan. I sure as hell hope not.”

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