Smoke assaulted Jessie’s lungs as she passed through the crowd of smokers huddled on the tiny concrete slab that served as a patio outside the small dark bar. She and her husband, Hank, hadn’t been there in years. Three years to be exact. The last time they walked through the door of The Golden Lasso, a small neighborhood watering hole, had been the day before Jessie found out she was pregnant. She had suspected as much and had only had one beer that visit. This time, however, she planned on getting stinking drunk.
It had been a rough week and Jessie couldn’t wait to start forgetting. On this rare occasion, Jessie and Hank had an overnight babysitter and were going to take advantage of it. They were planning on staying out until dawn or at least until the bartender and bouncer kicked them out, just like old times.
The Lasso was a dive bar with strong drinks, bar stools that looked like they had been around since the 1950’s, and a thick layer of dust covering the top shelf liquors that were never ordered by the thrifty drinkers that frequented the joint. Two pool tables, a jukebox, and a small stage completed the picture. This was not the place to order a glass of wine or anything that required a blender.
Jessie wasn’t a huge fan of The Lasso but Hank liked it and it was within walking distance of the couple’s house, which was a major consideration when planning the kind of night that Jessie envisioned. She wanted to let her hair down, flirt with Hank and anyone else who crossed her path, dance like a teenager, and drink like a college student. She wanted to have fun! The kind of fun that Hank and Jessie hadn’t experienced since their relationship was new — before diapers, and teething, and Bubble Guppies became part of their lives.
At one point in her life Jessie wouldn’t have even noticed the mold gathering on the ceiling or the way the smoky air drifted in through broken panes in the ancient windows that had long since been sealed shut with many coats of paint. Not that many years ago, Jessie may have even joined the throng of smokers as she began to feel the effects of the alcohol. Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have noticed how loud the music was or how the one-seater bathroom had zero ventilation.
But that was years ago and now she was suddenly aware of the toxicity of this environment. She could practically feel the DNA of her cells changing, becoming little growing machines, churning out outrageous numbers of malignant cells which would gather together in her organs and eventually overtake her body.
She was lost in this train of thought when her husband spoke, “What do you want honey?”
“Uh, a Bloody Mary I guess. With extra olives”, she added as an afterthought. The truth is Hank could have ordered for her, since she almost always ordered the same thing. Hank ordered his usual beer and they found a small stained table near the stage. Jesse attacked her drink with vigor and to her surprise it was really good. The bartender had followed her direction and added five olives instead of the usual three. “This is delicious,” Jessie said to no one in particular.
“What’s up with you today? You’re acting a little weird,” Hank asked. Jamie wanted to reply that she was always weird when she found a small hard knot in her breast. A knot that could be a fluid-filled cyst, a fibroid tumor, or perhaps just a swollen mammary duct.
She wanted to say that she was always weird when she had spent half the morning calling doctors and scheduling biopsies for the knot that was probably nothing but could be something. It could be the same something that had killed her grandmother or now endangered the life of her mom’s sister.
Or perhaps it was nothing. She wouldn’t know until next week when she went to the doctor, because of her unfortunate luck to have made this discovery on a Friday morning while taking her shower. She hadn’t said anything to Hank because that would have meant opening the door to the possibility that the nothing could be something. And Jessie wasn’t ready for that yet.
Instead of saying any of this, she simply shrugged and ate her last salty olive. As Hank made his way toward the bar to order a second round, Jessie took a quiet survey of the room. It was still early and there weren’t that many people here yet, but the two pool tables were already occupied.
At one table a couple about Jesse and Hank’s age flirted between turns. Jessie felt a pang of jealousy as she watched the man deftly graze a breast as he handed his date the pool stick. She watched as the woman let her hand linger too long on his and then turn and flash a smile playfully.
At the next table a very intense young man, with dark eyes and a dark expression played against an elderly gentleman, dressed to the nines and sporting a carrying case for his own billiard stick.
Jessie knew that Hank would want to play doubles against someone. He loved playing pool even though he really wasn’t that good. In the name of a good time, he would recruit Jessie even though she was a horrible player. If she had enough to drink she would enjoy herself and if not then she would bow out after the first game.
Hank would be happy if she at least tried and he would soon find someone else to play with him. Hank reappeared with their drinks. “Let’s put some quarters on the table,” Hank said motioning toward the table with the two men.
“Not them” groaned Jessie. “Let’s play against the couple. They look like more fun.”
“But they just started, these guys will be finished soon.” Hank replied as he walked toward the table. Inwardly Jessie sighed. Those guys were really good and she dreaded showing her lack of talent. She could just imagine them smiling to themselves as Hank approached them about a game.
She didn’t want to ruin this night so she would be a good sport. She would smile and miss shot after shot until the game was over and she could go back to eating salty olives and letting the vodka work its magic.
She often wondered why Hank showed no trepidation about showing his deficiencies in public. Perhaps he didn’t think he had any deficiencies. In his mind, Hank could do anything and he didn’t understand people like Jessie.
He didn’t understand being nervous or embarrassed about anything. His confidence knew no limits, and sometimes Jessie admired that quality. At other times, she wanted to remove those rose-colored glasses he wore and crush them under the heel of her stiletto boot.
All too soon, the intense young man and the elderly gentleman were ready for their game and reluctantly Jessie walked over to the row of sticks mounted on the wall and began the futile process of choosing one that would improve her performance. She really wasn’t drunk enough for this yet.
As she chalked up her stick, Hank began socializing with the two men. She heard them say they were playing a simple game of eight ball — which was a good thing since that was the only game she knew.
Her first attempt was decent but a failure and soon Jesse and Hank were far behind with all but two of their balls still on the table.
Hank showed no signs of stress or concern, he was simply happy to be out of the house with his wife having a good time. Jessie was simply waiting to lose so she could go back to her table, order another drink and listen to the band that was now setting up on the stage. Maybe even dance once she loosened up bit.
Then it happened.
Jessie sank a ball. It was a complete surprise to her since she really wasn’t aiming at anything. She was simply trying to lose as quickly as possible. But in her nonchalance the cue ball had glanced off the four ball and sent it wobbling into the corner pocket. She didn’t try to hide her surprise. She quickly took her position behind the cue ball once more to try and take advantage of this lucky streak.
Before she could pull back the stick, Hank grabbed it out of her hand and in an all-too-loud voice informed her that they weren’t playing slop. SLOP. In caps and implying dirty and dangerous things about Jessie that weren’t true.
Slop, sloppy, pig, pigsty, dirty, yucky, disgusting slop.
The word continued to ring in Jessie’s head and deeply offended her. As if reading her thoughts, Hank continued to explain that they were calling their shots and Jessie had obviously not called her shot and therefore could not take another. “I didn’t know we were calling shots since no one else has called anything so far.” Jamie hissed back.
“You don’t have to call it if it’s obvious. And you obviously didn’t mean to make that shot. Besides, that’s the way the game is played, everyone knows you can’t play slop.” Hank responded in a know-it-all fashion. It was Jessie’s turn again.
“Okay then, the two ball in the corner pocket,” Jessie called even though she was aiming in the opposite direction.
“You don’t have to be a smart ass.”
“I’m not being a smart ass, I just have no idea where these fucking balls are going to go. You know I’m no good at this game but you insist on making me play every time we go out. Sorry if I embarrass you.” Jessie was now practically yelling and she could see that Hank was getting angry.
“Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t make the rules. You can’t play slop.” Hank replied through clenched teeth. Jessie had to admit to herself that she wasn’t really mad at Hank.
She was mad at a game that took all of the luck and fun out of playing. Jessie was mad at people who wanted to play games where there was no chance for a lucky break. It suddenly seemed to her that everyone in the room was following an unseen script. That they all had practiced their moves until they knew exactly what was going to happen.
That guy in the corner with the Grateful Dead t-shirt? He knew exactly what to say to make the too-old-for-that-dress blonde laugh and tilt her head just so. The bartender with the enormous boobs and a nose piercing? She could stop an abusive drunk cold with her death stare. Those twenty-something girls with their expensive purses and lethal-looking acrylics? They had perfected the art of drinking free all night.
It felt like everyone was in on something that Jessie didn’t know. It was as if they could predict the exact effect they would have an object and did so with precision. Jessie on the other hand, depended almost entirely on luck and chance in her daily life.
She felt like she had been playing slop her entire life. Her career was an accident. Her relationship with Hank almost never happened and her desire for a child had been the happiest surprise of all. Without luck she would have nothing. At that moment she looked up to see Hank shaking hands with the winners and explaining to them that his wife didn’t understand the game.
Hank was apologizing for her ignorance. Jessie’s anger leapt up out of her body through her throat and she heard someone yelling, only realizing a moment later that the voice was her own.
“How dare you apologize for me! I just don’t believe in taking the fun out of everything you do. What good is a game if there is no chance for luck? What good is life if you already know what’s going to happen? I’m so fucking tired of you knowing every goddamn thing about everything. Well here’s something you don’t know mister — I might have breast cancer and I hope to God I’m allowed to play slop. I might need some FUCKING LUCK!”
Tears were streaming down Jessie’s face as she looked around the now silent bar at the stunned crowd. As soon as she saw Hank’s confused face, she realized what she had done and turned to run out of the bar. She ran as fast as she could in her boots toward home. It will be alright, it will be alright, I never have to come here again, she repeated over and over to herself as she stumbled toward the intersection. She had made it less than a block when Hank caught up to her, grabbing her shoulders and twirling her around to him.
He looked for a moment at her tear-stained face, and then pulled her to him pressing her tight against his body. The pressure of his embrace released something inside of Jessie and her sobs grew more urgent, racking her body in convulsive waves. They continued standing under the streetlight until Jessie grew quiet and weak. She collapsed into Hank’s arms and he carried her the rest of the way home, never saying a word.
Only after they were in bed, staring into the darkness did Jessie hear a distant faint voice.
Hank’s hand reached across her breasts and she led him to the spot that she feared and let him feel what she had felt in the shower. He felt the small hard knot with his fingers over and over, almost making her sore until he was sure he believed what he felt.
Then again silence. Hank didn’t try to call the next move and Jessie didn’t respond in any way. They simply lay together in the darkness and fell asleep in each other’s arms.