Every Night I Tell Him
Tony Charles made his run on a Friday night, when the
jukebox was belting out Jason Isbell, the lights were low, and the cigarette
smoke was thick as a band of low-lying clouds. He was slugging down Jack
Daniels like the distillery was on fire, and I was at one corner of the bar
with Kat. She had her hand on my leg under the bar where no one else could see,
and occasionally she’d give me a little squeeze.
I couldn’t tell if I was frozen or on fire. I had loved Kat
since the day I’d met her in ninth grade. Twenty years, and all of a sudden it
was like she’d noticed me for the first time. She pulled away when her husband,
Scott, shambled out of the men’s room. His shirt hung untucked over his gut and
sweat stood clearly on his high, sloping forehead. He bellied up to the bar and
ordered us all another round, despite the fact that Kat and I had barely
“What are you two smiling about?” He asked. “Y’all are thick
as thieves lately.”
Kat’s smile widened.
“Lanny’s trying to get me to run away with him again,” Kat
said. “You know, same as usual.”
I nearly choked on my beer, setting the heavy mug down a
little harder than I meant to. I watched their reflections in the mirror behind
the bar and didn’t say anything.
Scott stared hard at Kat, his eyes red and misty from the
beers, and she returned his look with a level gaze, her lip quirked in that
killer little go-to-hell smile that I loved so well.
“Yeah,” he said, and laughed. “Right.”
Kat turned her head back toward me.
“Every night I tell him, and every night he doesn’t believe
About that time Tony swaggered down the bar and asked Scott
if he’d like to shoot a little pool. Scott said yes, and they settled on a
dollar a game. It wasn’t high stakes—it never is around here—and we expected
Tony to lose anyway. That’s what Tony Charles was: a loser. He’d been a loser
ever since we’d known him in high school, and we all kind of dismissed him.
Tony was all right, I guess. He was always there on the periphery of things.
But you wouldn’t notice if he was gone. You’d just assume he was around
But this night was different.
They flipped for the break, and Tony won. He sank the two
and three balls off a shot that cracked like a whip. We could hear it over the
sound of Alannah Myles singing “Black Velvet.” He ran the table with a sure
hand that belied his very nature. Scott’s face was waxy white. He couldn’t
Through it all, Kat and I leaned our heads together, taking
turns to whisper in one another’s ear. Ideas and plans and sweet nothings.
Things I’d only ever dreamed of us saying to one another.
Tony and Scott stayed at the pool table and each time, Tony
won going away. Scott barely got a chance to put his cue on the worn green felt
of the table, and pretty soon it got to him. I bought us all a round, even one
for Tony, because it was such a change to see him win.
Scott didn’t understand what had happened. He came back to
the bar and ignored the beer I bought for him. Instead he ordered a double
bourbon on the rocks, lots of bitters. It didn’t take long for him to start
“Fucker ran the table on me,” he said. He was having a
little trouble separating his words, so that on me came out as one word.
“Everybody gets lucky sometime,” Kat said. She slurped the
watery tequila mix from the bottom of her glass and cast a meaningful glance at
me through the veil of her thick eyelashes.
Tony downed his whiskey and pushed off of the bar, heading
back to the pool table. I don’t think he ever put his cue down. He schooled a
couple of college-age kids, beating them as steady as a metronome. Tony swung
by us, his grin splitting his face from ear to ear.
“Didja see that? They wanted twenty bucks a game. I cleaned
’em out!” Tony bought us a round, even Scott. He was as gracious in victory as
he usually was in defeat, but by this time Scott had mostly quit drinking. His
face was sullen, and he was breathing hard through his mouth.
“I bet you can’t do that again,” Scott said. His eyes were
down to pinpoints somewhere beneath that sloping Cro-Magnon brow.
Tony smiled at him. “Sure I can,” he said. He had the
supreme confidence of a guy who knows he’s on a run, that his luck will hold.
“Prove it,” Scott said. “I got a hundred.”
Tony balked, just for a second, but I saw it. So did Scott,
who grinned a wolfish smile. He reached his wallet and pulled out a Benjamin.
Kat put her head face-down on the bar.
“Jesus,” she said. “Not again.” She sighed and pushed up
from the bar, all dramatic-like, puffing out her cheeks and blowing her hair
out of her face. She grabbed her purse and looked at me.
I put a hand on her forearm, said wait a minute. I don’t
know why I didn’t leave with her right then. I guess I just wanted to see what
would happen. Maybe somewhere deep inside me, I thought Tony’s streak was about
“Lanny’ll hold the money,” Scott said, and handed me the
C-note. “That alright with you?”
Tony nodded. He handed me a mix of twenties and fives and
ones from the money he’d won that night. I tucked it into the breast pocket of
my work shirt, and they moved to the green felt.
Tony sank the fourteen off the break, and then ran through
the rest of the stripes before dropping the eight into the side pocket with a
kiss as soft and chaste as a nun’s prayer. Scott never even touched the table.
I handed Tony the money and glanced at Kat. She shrugged into her leather
jacket. I pulled on my navy pea coat, and we headed for the door.
“Goddamn it,” Scott said behind us. “Make it double or
“What an asshole,” Kat said, her words nearly drowned out
by Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” I didn’t say anything, but we turned around
I wish we had kept going. Maybe things would have turned out
differently. Maybe we’d still be together. But we didn’t leave. Instead, we
went back to the bar, put our backs to it, and watched the game.
Scott demanded the break this time, even though it was
Tony’s by right. Tony let him go for it, though, and Scott whiffed on it. When
Tony tried to move in and take the shot—which was his right—Scott shoved him
back a couple of paces and positioned the cue ball again.
Tony let it slide.
Of course he did. That was Tony Charles in a nutshell. You
could insult him, you could push him around. Tony wouldn’t do anything. When we
were in high school, Scott rescued Tony one time when a couple of football
players were intent on giving him a swirlie in the boy’s bathroom on third
hall. I came along and helped at the end of things, making sure Scott didn’t
get jumped after the fact. So maybe Tony felt like he owed Scott something.
Whatever debt there may have been had been forgotten a long time ago, at least by
He couldn’t stand the sight of Tony mooning around us, and
a couple of times things had gotten physical. Nothing serious. None of us were
tough guys. None of us were mean, except for Scott when he’d been drinking. But
when things did get out of hand, Tony was the one who ended up with the bruises
and the cuts and the scrapes at the end of the night.
Scott took his second shot, and whiffed on that one, too.
The racked balls sat there, a triangular island in the middle of a sea of green
felt, undisturbed as the cue ball fluttered past and found the rail, rebounding
and spinning away like a lost child.
I turned around and put my drink to my lips to keep from
laughing, but nothing could have disguised my shaking shoulders. Kat leaned
against me, and I could feel her silent trembling laughter, too. In the mirror,
Scott glared at Tony. He lined up the break for the third time, and this time
the cue ball struck home.
Nothing dropped, so Tony approached the table. Scott stood
his ground, his shoulders hunched, and his head lowered like a pit bull about
to bite. Tony took no notice, and Scott faded back toward the bar. Kat and I
straightened up and turned around to watch Tony work the table again.
It was more of the same, as clean a game of eight-ball pool
as you’d ever see, like watching the pros on TV, I tell you. That night, Tony
didn’t know how to lose. For one glorious moment, the cosmic laws that had cast
him into his eternal downtrodden state were suspended by whatever perverse gods
may rule us.
And then he missed.
Scott surged forward to the table. It was the opening he’d
been hoping for. Tony had left a clear path to the two and the six, and Scott
was able to knock both of those down. On the next shot, though, his stick
wandered and bumped the eight. It rolled across the sea of green felt like an
ocean liner on a collision course with an iceberg and dropped into the side
Tony whooped in triumph, dropping to his knees in relief.
Sweat stood out on the back of his blue cotton button-down shirt. He stood up,
a little shaky now, and stuck his hand out to shake, but Scott slapped his hand
away. The jukebox wound down. No more quarters, no more music. A dark cloud
crossed Tony’s face for a moment, but only for a moment. He came over, his cue
dangling from one hand, and held out the other palm to me. I fished into my
pocket for the thick wad of bills. His winnings.
There was a crash over my shoulder. Tony’s eyes widened,
and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I looked behind me, and the back-bar mirror
was shattered. Beside the billiard table, Scott grunted with effort. He was
firing the remaining balls from the table at Tony like he was Nolan Ryan and
the World Series was on the line. The five-ball missed us all, but it took out
a bottle of Bulleit bourbon and a fifth of Jameson. The next ball—I think it
was the one—struck Tony square in the forehead.
He went down like he’d been shot, and a huge goose egg
began to sprout immediately, stretching Tony’s white, waxy skin. His hands and
feet flailed against the floor like an epileptic having a seizure, and his eyes
rolled back in his head. Scott rushed forward and dropped to his knees beside
Tony. He still held a billiard ball in each hand.
“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck, help him.”
Kat moved at the same time I did. She took the balls away
from Scott, and I elevated Tony’s head off the floor. I have no idea if that
was the right thing to do or not. I don’t know CPR. But he was coming around a
little, saying something I couldn’t quite catch. His brain and his mouth seemed
disconnected somewhere, like when you watch a TV show, and the soundtrack isn’t
quite in sync with the picture.
Scott fell back on his haunches, but he was so drunk that
he couldn’t stay there. He slid back onto his ass on the floor. Tears clouded
his eyes, and he kept saying oh I’m sorry
I’m so sorry oh I’m sorry I’m so sorry over and over again until the words
faded into the background and were meaningless noise.
Tony’s eyes finally fluttered open, and a few seconds later
they began to focus. He grabbed Kat’s arm with one white-knuckled hand and
asked, “What happened?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Stay still. You’re gonna be OK.”
Tony tried to sit up. He rolled onto one elbow and threw up
onto the sawdust. His boot-clad feet scrabbled at the floor as he tried to get
them underneath him to stand.
“Maybe that’s not a good idea,” I said, and tried to guide
him back to the floor.
“That son of a bitch,” Tony said. I think I was the only
one who heard him. He grabbed his cue and hoisted himself up. He listed to one
side like a ship about to sink. “I won, dammit. I won.”
None of us saw it coming. Scott was still down on his ass,
trying to scramble back, to give Tony some room. But Tony lashed out with the
fat end of his cue stick, cracking Scott in the face. His nose exploded,
showering us all in blood. The cue shattered from the force of the blow,
leaving long, jagged, wickedly sharp stakes of wood. Tony picked one up and
went after Scott. I tried to hold him back, but he slashed at my eyes, and I
They went down in a heap, and it was the only fight I ever
saw Tony win. He used the shards of his cue to slash and spear skin wherever he
could find it. By the time Tony got both hands around Scott’s throat, Scott was
Tony’s hands were slick and red with blood by the time he
began to choke Scott, and by that time, there was nothing we could have done,
The bartender finally came around the bar with a sawed-off
Louisville Slugger. He didn’t waste any time or motion. He cracked Tony across
the back of the head, and our resident loser collapsed on top of Scott,
shuddered twice, and lay still.
By the time the ambulance got there, they were both dead.
No losers and no winners now. Kat stared, unable to tear her gaze away as the
EMTs zipped the bodies into the black plastic bags, closing their faces off
from the light of the world.
“Do you want to ride with them?” I asked. She nodded and
got into the ambulance. She never looked at me, and I never spoke to her again.
When the ambulance left, they didn’t use the siren, or the
blinking lights. There was no reason to hurry.
Mathews is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. His checkered past as a
journalist, investigator, PR flack, bartender, and roustabout often finds its
way into his fiction. His short stories have been published in All Due
Respect, Bristol Noir, Close to the Bone, The Dark City,
The Sandy River Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Shotgun Honey.
His novel, Magic City Blues, will be published in February 2022
by Close to the Bone. His story “The Handyman” appeared in Issue #84 of Yellow
O’Keefe is an artist and writer living in Roselle
Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse University where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After
graduation, Sean moved to New York City where he spent time working in restaurants and
galleries while pursuing various artistic opportunities. After the birth of his children,
Sean and family move to Roselle Park in 2015. He actively participates in exhibitions and
art fairs around New Jersey, and is continuing to develop his voice as a writer.
His work can be found online at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.