“The Shark” appeared in V: New International Writing from Edinburgh, a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh Creative Writing department, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and the Edinburgh College of Art. As a web search does not indicate that the book’s available anywhere for purchase, I’m going to assume what copies are left have a quarter-inch dust coating and reside in a dank basement underneath the University of Edinburgh English Department offices on Buccleuch Place.
So, here it is:
Jason Harrison Morton
I put fifty cents on the pool table and she looks over her shoulder, smiling at me from the bar. I return to her, touching that shoulder, letting my fingertips graze the soft skin of her upper arm, and put my hands on a ten-ounce plastic cup of ice-cold twenty-five cent beer.
The place is dark; the old, grizzled bikers sit in booths across the room, an age gradient leaving the younger patrons fizzling out toward the back door. And she shakes her head when my order for a fifty-cent hot dog comes up. I find the condiments as she talks to an old friend.
I top the dog with relish, mustard, ketchup, onions; and come back with it half-eaten. She says it’ll give me a stomachache. She says she won’t want to kiss me after that. She tells me what hot dogs are made from and asks me, after knowing that, do I feel worse for eating it?
I say no and someone holding a pool cue taps me on the shoulder. “This your money?” He asks. I say yes and the man holding the pool cue says, “Rack ‘em.” I put the coins in the slots and push in the lever. The balls drop with a confusion of noise, but all find their way to the end of the table. And I put them all in place, and she talks with the bartender about high school gym class, sipping on her twenty-five cent beer.
And this first guy’s a tough match, but in the end I come out ahead by one. Mean’s the next game’s free. But my opponent pulls two more coins out of his pocket and says, “Rematch.” The next game’s more of the same, except his luck’s wearing thin and mine’s coming on strong. He’s got three left on the table by the time I sink the eight. He doesn’t reach in his pocket this time, just takes his glass of beer, walks to the other side of the bar, to a booth, and sits down.
And I go back to my baby.
She’s warmth in the chill air of the tavern – bright red shirt standing out against the worn green carpet. The woodwork in the joint’s fake and her mouth tastes like wine and smoke. Her coat’s on the back of the chair, the black vinyl cracked, showing the lemon-yellow cushioning underneath. The horse pin on the lapel of the jacket gives me a look, but another tap on my shoulder takes me away.
And two more games go the same way of the first two. And I’m sick of playing, but the table’s still mine.
I come back to the bar, bullshitting with the bartender about god-knows-what. I’ve run up an almost ten-dollar tab on quarter beers and dogs, and he thanks us for coming down.
Another tap. And I play a fiftiesh woman. And she’s good. I’m hanging on tightly, going neck-and-neck. I drop my last ball, but it hits twice. “Did you mean to double-kiss it?” She asks. I say yes, though I didn’t, and drop the eight. She walks away with a suspicious look in her eye, but doesn’t come back.
And my baby’s drunk, and she’s talking about ‘this bitch at work’, and she’s talking about how they short-changed her at Wendy’s today, and she’s talking about how it’s still too fucking cold in the middle of May. She lights a cigarette; smoke dances above her fingers. I think about how the first girl I dated in high school lives half a block away, and I’m glad she’s not sitting on the cracked-vinyl black stool next to mine.
I hear from the pool table, “Who’s got next?”, and turn; the guy’s got short, messed-up blond hair. Not messed up intentionally, but that he’s been drinking and contemplating and rubbing his head to help the thoughts come out. I stand up and say, me.
He racks and I break, and he’s drunk and leaves four of his on the table by the time I sink the eight. He comes up to the bar, saying to me, “We gotta play ano–er game.” I brush him off, but he sees her and says “Hey.” She’s drunker now and says, hey yourself, turns back away, talks to her friend at the bar. He smiles, and I don’t like the smile.
He gets the change. He racks and I break, and he’s drunk, and every time I take a shot, he’s up next to my woman, putting his hand on her shoulder, letting his fingertips graze the soft skin of her upper arm, then putting his hands on a ten-ounce cup of twenty-five cent beer. And she keeps turning back to her friend, and he keeps interjecting.
I tap him on the shoulder and say, you’re up. He says, “You make anything?” I say, nope. He goes to shoot and she says, that guy’s a creep, and I say it’ll work itself out. And he’s too drunk to even drop a single ball, but with every turn I take, he’s over there, smelling her beer breath and cigarette smoke and lavender lotion.
Finally, he comes back around and pulls me close, telling me she’s two-timing me with her friend. I smile and nod and pretend that I know what he’s talking about and drop my last three balls: a cut, a split, a cut. And he says something like “Ooo-wee,” and I square up for the eight. I square up, and hit it where I want to hit it.
The end-ball drops in the far right corner pocket, a cut, and the cue ball slowly rolls, rolls, rolls. Rolls right in the far left corner pocket. And I curse, and he says something like, “Hey!” and I just ignore him. He offers to pay for a rematch, but I shake my head and say, I’m sick of playin.
We both walk back up to the bar, with him to my left and her to my right, her likeness reflected by a mirror behind bottles of bargain liquor. I retake the stool, and put my hand on her leg.
She turns from her friend and asks, you win for me babe?
I cock my head to the side. “Sure did.”