Published August 9, 2017
Pine-needle felt bristled under her inked knuckles, the burnished wood cue clasped so tightly it might as well have been an extension of her own arm. Half a cigarette drooping from her bottom lip, another tucked behind her ear, she scanned her battlefield with the methodical calculation of a general in the days when wars had still been fought with flesh. Her attack must be quick, precise, surgical, but most of all, efficient.
“Nah, Beth, don’t bother taking the fucking shot,” cracked Marci, her voice clawing through the hailstorm of vibrations that bounded out from the stage. “’S not like we’re on a budget here.” The frayed ends of her denim shorts dangled over the edge of the table, her own cue cocked at a lazy horizontal behind her shoulders like she was some martyred saint on the cross.
Ignoring her friend, she gripped the cue tighter, weighing its heft against the distance of the maroon fifteen from the scuffed cue ball near the center pocket. The table was still a zebra herd of stripes compared to the handful of solids left, but if she could strike the fifteen at just the right angle with just the right amount of force, she could persuade it bounce to against the ragged edge and strike the yellow nine with just enough power to send both of them rolling into the far pocket. She took a steadying puff on her cigarette, the smoke floating up to join the charcoal nimbus that hung suspended over the whole place. The Seabees had done wonders for the waning tobacco companies.
Gucci ran a chestnut thumb over her stubble, perched on the barstool like an old church gargoyle, cracking and eating peanuts with metronomic efficiency. “C’mon, Beth, Marci’s right. You either sink it or you sink yourself.” She flicked a shell off into the rowdy neon dark. “Get it over with.”
“Would the two of you shut the hell up?” she asked. A flash of pain as the ember of her cigarette touched her lip, and she let the butt fall to the floor. The familiar tingle, like biting down on a piece of foil, as the Seabees went to work, and the burn was gone. “It’s hard enough to concentrate with the girls up on stage trying to smash the place to pieces with their badly tuned strings. Would you mind keeping your squawking to a minimum?”
Boot buckles glinting in the bourbon-brown dusk as she kicked at the air, Marci shook out her kinky curls. Beetle blue this week, or maybe a sleek amethyst. It was hard to tell in the murky light. A pink carnival balloon protruded from her lips, inflating with comical exuberance before retreating back between her teeth with a desultory pop. “Fine,” she said, arching her back. “But throw down another twenty minutes for wasting everyone’s time.”
“Sure, fine, whatever,” she said, breathing heavily. She just needed to concentrate. Of course, concentrating in the sensory mire of the Crack of Heaven was like trying to take a pair of hedge trimmers to an oak tree. At this point she was just drawing it out, letting the thread tumble from the spool. She would either make the shot or she wouldn’t, and all she was doing now was wasting time.
“She’s too bitch,” Gucci said, examining with displeasure the nail she had chipped against a particularly difficult legume. The electric acrylics were pasted on, so the Seabees did nothing to mend the blemish. “She knows you’ve got her beat. Might as well hand over your hour now, Beth honey.”
Turning the cue between her thumb and index, she brushed off the words like midges. Another deep breath, the stale smell of pot and tobacco and frothy yeasty air belched up from the tap across the room. The powder blue eye of the cue shot out like a viper, striking the white ball. It careened across the table like a comet, striking the maroon fifteen, which rolled over the mossy green, towards the striped yellow… and then right past it, striking the eight, the black spot, the sentence of death, and sending it spinning into the down right corner pocket.
Marci let out a guttural whoop, dropping from the edge of the table. The noise evidentially managed to somehow penetrate the cocoon of electric noise on the stage, because the bald woman on the guitar, under the impression that her cry was in appreciation of the lewd and indecipherable music, whooped back.
“Fuck!” exclaimed Beth. Her eyes were fixed on the black maw that had swallowed up the eight and issued the proclamation against her. An irrational urge to snap the pool cue across her knee surged up her spine. “Fuck!”
“Come on, cough it up, Beth,” Marci said, leaning her cue against the table. Her electric green lips fiddled a satisfied smirk. “It’s an hour, you’ll live.”
Having exhausted the bowl of peanuts, Gucci had turned her attention to more amorous pursuits. “Just give her the fucking hour, Beth, she won fair and fucking square,” she said, only half paying attention. “Don’t be a fucking bitch.” The first band had come down off the stage and was now ordering drinks at the bar. Mussing up her hair, she was engaged in a fruitless struggle to catch the eye of the heavily pierced bassist.
Offering her friend a half smile to show that no real animosity had transpired, Beth rolled up her sleeve. Touching two fingers to the circular screen melded to the flesh of her wrist, it flickered to life. 00:01:02:03:16:34 read the iridescent digits. Sliding open a menu, she flicked through several screens and selected the Transfer option and keyed in an hour. Marci extended her own wrist, and the two pressed them against each other as children might exchange an oath of blood kinship. The familiar hum suffused her, as if every cell in her body were blinking in and out of focus, and then it was over. 00:01:02:03:15:33 read her screen.
Beth took a seat on a cracked red leather stool. She couldn’t help casting repeated glances at the table every few seconds. “Damn, Marc,” she said, reaching for a peanut and finding only a mound of shattered shells. “I don’t even know why you bother working when you can just keep bleeding me dry every Wednesday. I’m gonna have to start playing Gucci instead.”
“Hey!” Gucci said, shooting her a venomous look. “I could kick both of your fucking asses if I wanted to,” she said. “I just don’t like the fucking game.” She had given up on the bassist, who was now necking with a skinny blonde in a corner table. Her eyes wandered up to the stage, where a group wearing the fashion of almost a hundred years ago was tuning their instruments.
“Oh please,” Marci said, casting a glance at the bass player. “You couldn’t land in a hole if you tripped at the edge of the Grand Canyon.”
She turned a bright enough red that it shown even in the dim light, nearly tripping as she stood up. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she announced.
“Oh, come on, Gee, I was just taking the piss,” said Marci. “Hey Beth, you mind bumming me one? I left my pack in the cup holder.”
“Fuck yourself,” Beth said, blowing a silver. “You’re the high roller, go buy your own.”
“I’ll do you one better,” she said. “How about I go buy us a round, huh? My treat.” She wandered off as the band launched into a scratchy, off-key rendition of an antique tune called "Bad Reputation.""
“Man, I love that girl, but she can be a real fucking bit-of-c-an’-h when she wants,” said Gucci. She was picking dully at her cracked nail.
Beth produced a dark green skin marker from her breast pocket and began touching up the spirals of ivy that wrapped around her knuckles and down her wrists. The Seabees had long ago rendered permanent tattoos an art of the past. “Oh, you know she’s just playin’ Gee,” she said.
Running her thumb down her square jaw, Gucci grimaced. “Yeah, well, it’s a touchy subject sometimes. We can’t all be like Princess Perfect, sinking every shot and landing every pair of legs she zeroes in on.”
Beth pocketed the marker. “Yeah,” she said, watching as the bartender laughed at something Marci said. “I know what you mean.”
“Speaking of, where’s Callie? Busy, or just didn’t want to hang out with your riff-raff pals?”
“Oh, come on,” Beth said. “That’s not fair. It’s got nothing to do with you guys and you know it. This isn’t exactly her scene.” She neglected to mention that Callie had just lost her job at the shoe store, and was conserving every second while she put in frantic application after frantic application for everything from fry cook to flight attendant.
“Yeah, but it’s our scene, and what the hell are you doing with someone that doesn’t dig our gig, you know?”
“Gucci, don’t,” Beth cautioned. “I’m getting really sick of telling you to put out that torch you’re carrying.”
Once again she flushed, this time shooting past beet and settling somewhere around stale ketchup. “Beth, that’s not what I—“
“Just drop it, Gee,” she said.
“I said drop it,” she said, a bit more razor sneaking into her voice than she had intended. Reeling it back a bit, she added “Hey, I think I saw Bubblegum over there taking a peek at you a few times earlier.” She cocked a thumb at a woman in a hot pink headscarf sitting by herself a few tables away, nodding her head to the music.
Gucci sighed, flicking a stray peanut shell from the scratched lacquer of the table. It whizzed through the air in a frenetic spin, joining the detritus of napkins and flyers that carpeted the bar. She looked about ready to speak, but the conversation was cut short by the reappearance of Marci. A tray of shot glasses was held proudly in her hands, each one a bright lightning blue. The smell of the alcohol was strong enough to curl the hairs in Beth’s nose.
“Thirsty, ladies?” she asked, placing the tray on the table with prideful bravado. “I went ahead and splurged. The full 98%. ‘Course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank our real benefactor this evening.” She tipped Beth a playful wink.
“Shut up,” Beth said, taking a glass. The vapor wafted up from the cyan liquor, tickling her eyes with daggers. Bracing herself, she closed her eyes and threw back the liquid. The insipid blue raspberry flavor that had been added to the drink was a bitter joke. It was like taking a draught of acid straight from an old car battery. Her brain wrapped around itself, humming, screaming, stumbling, pulsing with a great white light, and then the room jittered slowly back into focus. Drunkenness was another of the Seabees’ regrettable casualties. A few scant seconds of a real buzz were all that could be mustered from the strongest drink possible, but it still helped to steady Beth. When she came back down, she felt a bit more firmly planted.
Marci shook her head, whooping and grinding her teeth. “Whoops!” she exclaimed. There was a tinkling crash as the glass hit the floor, and she gave a raucous cackle.
Beth couldn’t help but wish for a bit of her friend’s optimism. She cast a glance at Gucci. The alcohol had painted a serene look over her face, and she reached for the second glass, brought it to her lips, and downed it. The whole operation was performed with a robotic calm. The alcohol had burned a track through her lipstick, a stripe of soft brown showing through the hard pink.
Beth’s mind wandered back to Callie, and guilt trickled down her neck. Here she was, gambling and drinking away precious minutes while her partner desperately scrabbled to keep her clock wound. No, she told herself resolutely. That wasn’t fair. She practically slaved away at the garage, her fingertips permanently dusky with grease. Hard labor, turning and tuning and lifting in boiler heat. Besides, it wasn’t like her own hourglass was overflowing with sand. It wasn’t a crime to enjoy herself with her friends. She banished the thoughts with another skull-splitting shot.
When she refocused this time, Gucci and Marci were breaking away from what appeared to be a particularly sloppy kiss. They exchanged a look of flushed embarrassment. Each seemed to be drowning in words but unable to speak. Finally, Gucci got unsteadily to her feet. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta piss.” She tottered off towards the opposite direction from the restroom, redirected course, and disappeared into the swamp of patrons and tables.
Beth tipped Marci a questioning look, raising an incredulous eyebrow. Marci had turned the color of an old Merlot, and she spluttered a bit. “Oh, fuck off,” she said, and vanished after Gucci.
She took another shot.
Bobbing back to the surface, she ran a few fingers through her feathered hair, shaking it out. Her eyes wandered around the room. Clusters of women, eyes crinkled in laughter or lips curled in rage. Ragged scraps of clothing dredged up from decades past, obscenities against the present woven in denim and patches. On the stage, the singer was belting out some anthem of independence dragged from the dregs of yesterday. The whole place was a lumpy mishmash of anachronism, a heap of broken clocks smashed together into a refuge from the ever present ticking that pervaded the world outside. Even that was an illusion. Even here, in the womb of escape, she could feel the paradoxical hum that infested her flesh. It was there, like the incessant buzz of summer mayflies, lurking in her cells. Nanites, injected at birth, surfing through her blood stream, lining the walls of her lungs, lurking and waiting. The same force keeping her alive, in peak condition, healing every scratch and scuff, was waiting inside, sharpening its microscopic scythes against the walls of her heart.
She looked again at the women. How many of them, she wondered, would live past thirty? Twenty-five, even? They were the bottom rung, the expendable labor, the cogs in the great clock. The Seabees had come in a great wave, washing away sickness and injury, and in their place they had brought congestion. They were the buildup, the unintended side-effect. Worker bees, scrambling to desperately squeeze seconds from the teat of the machine, just enough to make it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. It happened to so many; time escaped them, their labor was no longer enough to overcome the descent of the numbers on their wrist, and they zeroed out, shut down from inside. Food, housing, transportation, electricity, eating away at their time like locusts until the crop could no longer be sustained. How many in this room were weeks from zero? Days? Hours, even?
She looked down at her own wrist. One month. Two weeks. Three Days. Fifteen hours. Twelve minutes. Her life, etched in iridescent blue on her own skin. Once again, guilt bubbled up inside. It seeped into her stomach lining, joining the alcohol and searing her gut, a burn that the Seabees couldn’t fix. Callie, with her wide doe eyes, her thin smile. Callie, awkward and stumbling, never quite seeming to fit into the space she occupied. Callie, betrayed by that awkwardness, thrust into limbo by a simple slip, a tumbled shelf of All Stars and Nikes, condemned to chronological uncertainty by one fall. Callie, whose wrist showed only a week and a few days. Crumbs. A week in which to find a new job in a world overstuffed with mad, frantic gears, each trying to shove themselves into the bursting innards of the clock.
Again Beth looked at her wrist. Only an hour. She had only spent an hour. It was only an hour. Just one hour. Sixty minutes. Three thousand, six hundred seconds. Peanuts, really. She looked at the bowl of empty shells and grimaced. It was a poor analogy.
She was rescued from her musings by the clattering return of her friends. Marci’s frizzy hair was mussed to hell and back, Gucci’s lipstick smeared across her cheek like a pink comet. Flushing, Marci gave Beth an unsteady grin. “Sorry,” she said. “The line for the loo was heck.”
Beth cast a glance at Gucci’s snapped bra strap, hanging loosely from the shoulder of her tank top like a downed wire. She couldn’t help smiling herself. For the sake of her friends’ already battered dignity, she swallowed the words brewing on her tongue.
“So, what’d we miss?” Gucci asked, reaching for a drink. She was disappointed to find only a row of empty shot glasses.
“A whole lotta nothing and a hefty dose of zilch,” said Beth. She was grateful for her friends’ return. Her thoughts had been bitter company indeed.
“You up for another game, hon?” Marci asked, flashing Beth a line of perfect white teeth. “Maybe win back a few minutes?”
Briefly, Beth entertained the idea. She could win back the time, time that was sorely needed, had been frivolously thrown to the wind… Was the gamble worth it? She looked down at the hands that had already betrayed her once tonight, and shook her head. “Sorry, Marc,” she said. “I’m a bit strapped for time at the mo’. Maybe next time.”
“Fucking weak,” she said, leaning back on the stool. Beth couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes flashed past her, toward Gucci’s chest. Great, she thought. Now I know how they feel when Callie’s along for the ride. Quickly, she tried to jump off that train of thought. No, she thought resolutely. For better or worse, I’m here, and I’m going to enjoy myself, dammit.
“I wouldn’t be averse to a game.” The voice was unfamiliar, and Beth followed it to find a woman leaning leaning against the neighboring table. She was rolling the blue tip of her pool cue between her fingertips with lackadaisical disinterest. A wheat-golden braid fell down past her waist, past the green plastic belt and trailing off against her polyester-clad thigh. In her modern clothes, she looked as if she had been haphazardly pasted into the anachronism stew around them.
“Who the fuck are you, sunshine?” asked Gucci, blowing a gum bubble. Beth cast a quick glance towards Marci, saw that her own gum had disappeared, and gagged a bit.
The newcomer ignored her question, attention fixed squarely on Marci. “What do you say? Down to gamble a few grains of sand?” Her voice was like crinkled foil, sharp and metallic, jackknifing through the tumultuous music like a dog whistle. Her unpainted lips parted, showing a row of perfectly aligned teeth.
Marci spun on the stool a bit, rolling her neck. “Whatcha thinkin’?” she asked. “Half hour? Forty-five minutes?”
The woman snorted, crinkling her nose as if Marci had emitted some awful odor rather than spoke. “Where’s the fun in that?” she asked. “Why play for a pittance? What’s even the point?”
Marci leaned forward a bit, an intrigued smile playing on her lips. The smell of stakes singed the air. “What’re you thinking, then, Barbie doll?”
“Oh, come on, don’t be stupid,” said Gucci. She was once again ignored.
The woman lazily cocked her neck against her shoulder, adopted a look of faux thoughtfulness. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, fingering the tip of her cue. “I was thinking, say… Twenty years?”
“You’re off your fucking rocker,” said Gucci, almost swallowing her gum.
Marci grinned. “Hah hah,” she said, leaning forward. “Now really, whatcha thinkin’?” The woman laid her cue against the neighboring stool, and grasping the stretchy periwinkle fabric of her top, rolled the material up her forearm. She held her arm up at a diagonal, so that they could all see the digits rendered there in searing blue: 99:11:04:6:23:59.
When she rerolled her sleeve, the numbers seemed to be chiseled into Beth’s retinas.
“Jesus Christ,” said Marci, a slightly awed look on her face. Her smile was gone.
Gucci, it appeared, was less than impressed. Her lips were curled back in a bitter sneer, her eyes narrowed. “What’s a Maxi doing in a dive like this?” she asked. “You think it’s funny, bitch? Come on down here, laugh at us a bit, rub some salt in our sores?”
For the first time, her gaze turned to Gucci, indolently, as if blown towards her on a breeze. “Your trite accusations are tedious,” she said, “and frankly, you’re beginning to get on my nerves. How much do you think I’d have to shear off to have them kick your ass out of here? Six months? A year? Small potatoes, surely. I don’t even remember how high my numbers go off the scale. But if you don’t shut up, I’m willing to find out.”
Gucci sat stock still on her stool, nostrils flaring like bellows, fighting to keep some acerbic comment locked between her lips.
Beth got to her feet. “Don’t talk to her like that,” she snarled. “Don’t you dare fucking talk to her like that.”
The woman didn’t even glance her way, instead leveling again with Marci. “What do you think, then?” she asked with a small smile. “Twenty years. You have… let me guess, what, a month? Two months? Imagine. Twenty whole years. Sure, cut off half of those for living expenses… that’s still ten whole years, no work required, rent free life. It’s not every day an opportunity like that rolls along, is it? So what do you say?”
Marci was silent for a moment, her eyes cast downward. Tension crackled, the music faded into the background as the whole world spun, a watch suspended on a chain. Her lips curled in a smile that mirrored the woman’s. “I think you can take your twenty years and cram them right up your perky little asshole, Fairy Godmother o’ mine.”
The Maxi’s smile broadened into a cold grin, mirthless and sharp. “Your loss,” she said.
“I may not have much of a life,” said Marci, leaning back on her stool and taking a sip of water. “But I like the scraps I have too much to gamble them away. Sorry, princess. I’m not your girl.”
Somewhere inside Gucci a valve burst, the pressure that had been slowly building behind her flushed cheeks boiling over. “Fuck you,” she spat, spraying venom across the tabletop. “Who the fuck do you think you are,” she said, words spilling over her lips in a hot foam. “You come in here with your fancy fucking clothes and your fancy fucking hair and your designer goddam smile, you dangle the carrot over our heads, ask us to risk our lives on something that won’t cost you jack shit, for what… sick kicks?” She pointed a shaking, chipped fingernail at Marci. “You wanna see her keel over dead right here in the middle of this bar? You like seeing us plebeians get shut down?” she asked. “That get you going, all hot and bothered? That get you all wet? Fuck you, fuck your time, and fuck off my friends and my bar you high-rolling, shit-spewing cunt.”
Breathing heavily, she looked to Beth, pleading for support. Beth stayed silent, biting her lip. Marci seemed to suddenly notice an interesting poster on the far wall.
The Maxi tilted her head, a still rage glittering behind her eyes. Dyed purple, noticed Beth dully. That had to cost at least a year.
“Have a good night, girls,” she said, standing up straight. “Enjoy your sad little seconds.”
As she turned and began to tread away, the music seemed to fill the senses. Jagged spirals of guitar, machine gun fire of drums, low and roaring bass, seeping back into the empty air. Beth watched the Maxi start to recede into the crowd. Her time was too precious to spent on frivolities like hesitation.
The floor smacked against her boot heels, fingers curling around her cue. “Hey,” she called. “Fairy Godmother. Take me to the fucking ball.”
The Maxi turned, walking slowly back towards them. “Well,” she said, brandishing her own cue like a royal scepter. “This is unexpected.”
Gucci looked at Beth, stunned. “Have you gone completely fucking schiz?” she asked. “You don’t got twenty years, Beth! You don’t got a fucking year!”
“Yeah,” she said. Scattered shoes, Doc Martens and Adidas and Keds. Ticking blue numbers. Fickle, falling sand. “Yeah, I know. And that’s exactly why I want to play.”
Frantic tears began to crystalize at the corner of Gucci’s eyes. “Are you kidding me right now?” she asked. She looked to Marci, who was clutching her water glass so tightly that her knuckles were rendered a light bronze. “Come on, help me out here.”
“Shut up, Gee,” she said, quietly. “It’s her time.” The glass clicked loudly against the tabletop, and Beth flinched a bit at the anger she heard in the noise. “Let her do what she wants with it.”
Beth took a shaky breath, leveling with the Maxi’s gleeful eyes. “Double it,” she said. “Forty years. Double it and I’ll play.”
At first the Maxi looked offended, and then that perfect grin returned. In a world where all smiles had been rendered perfect by the machinations of the Seabees, hers was positively immaculate. “Sure, Cinderella,” she said. “We’ll play it your way.”
“This is fucking nuts,” breathed Gucci, running her fingers through her hair. “Completely fucking bonkers.” Marci stared straight ahead, staring at nothing at all.
Acutely aware of the hum in her cells, the shifting sand beneath her feet, Beth placed the balls on the table. One, two, three, four, numbers on a clockface. Concentrate. Reign in the heart threatening to beat right out of her ribs. The billiard balls suitably arranged, she stepped back. The chalk squeaked against the end of her cue.
“Your break,” said the Maxi.
Beth nodded in silence. Music pounded in her ears, but the words were meaningless noise. She was sharply aware of the tempo that lurked below the tune. Piece by piece, the instrumentation fell away until all she heard was the ceaseless tick, tick, tick that was hidden beneath the skin. Like a machine, she lined up the cue, testing the weight in her hand, directed at the white ball at the center of the green field.
With a sharp thrust the cue ball was thrown forward, and they began to play.