My daddy told me it wasn't a place I ought to be, because the owner, who had once been a good friend of his, and the owner's friends were troublesome, which was his way of saying they were no-accounts or hoods. My mother didn't want me there, either, but after high school, about twice a week, sometimes three times a week, me and my friends Donald and Lee would go over to the pool hall to shoot a few runs of Solids and Stripes, which was the only pool game we knew.

I think what we liked about going there was that pool was thought of as a tough guy's game, a game played in bars with lots of cigarette and cigar smoke and some rough-looking characters hanging around. And that's just the way Rugger's Pool Hall was. I saw Jack Rugger and his friends at my father's garage from time to time, where my daddy kept their cars running. My daddy was no shrinking violet, either, but his strength and anger were generally of a positive sort and not directed at my person. Rugger and his pals were a mystery to me, because they talked about drinking and whoring and fighting and about how bad they were, and the thing was, I knew they weren't just bragging.

I figured I was pretty bad myself, and so did Donald and Lee. They were my fan club. In school, with my six-three, two-hundred-pound frame, and the bulk of it weight-lifting muscles, I was respected. I had even, on occasion, gotten into fights outside of school with older, bigger college boys and whipped them. I had a few moves. I was always waiting for a chance to prove it.

So, this time I'm talking about, we walked over there from school to buy a couple of soda pops and shoot some pool and slip a cigarette and talk about girls and tail, like we'd had any, and when we got there, Rugger's cousin, Ray Martin Winston, was there along with Rugger and a retarded kid who cleaned up and kept sodas in the soda machine. The kid always wore a red baseball cap and overalls, lived in the back, and Rugger usually referred to him as 'the retard'. The kid went along with this without any kickback. He was as dedicated to Rugger as a seeing-eye dog, and about as concerned with day-to-day activities as a pig was about algebra.

Ray Martin was older than we were, but not by much. Maybe three years. He had dropped out of school as soon as he could, and I had no idea what he did for a living, though it was rumored he stole and sold and ran a few whores, one of which was said to be his sister, though any of it could have been talk. He was a peculiar-looking fella, one of those who seem as if their lives will be about trouble, and that was Ray Martin. He was lean but not too tall, had a shock of blond hair, which he took great care to lightly oil and comb. It was his best feature. It was thick and fell down on his forehead in a Beach Boy kind of wave. His face always made me think of a hammerhead shark. It had to do with his beady black eyes and the way his nose dropped straight down from his thick forehead and along the length of his face until it stopped just above lips as thin as razor cuts. His chin looked like a block of stone. He had chunky white teeth, all them about the size of sugar cubes. He would have made a great Dick Tracy villain. He had a reptilian way of moving, or at least that's how it seemed to me, as if he undulated and squirmed. I guess in the back of my head there was a piece of me itching to find out just how dangerous he really was.

We shot a game at our table, while Ray Martin shot alone at one of the other three, knocking the cue ball around, racking and breaking and taking shots. Free time had given him good aim and a good arm for the table.

I was feeling my oats that day, and I looked over and said, 'You're pretty good playin' yourself.'

Ray Martin raised his head and twisted it, cracked his neck as he did, and gave me a look that I had never seen before. Rugger came over quickly with a beer from the cooler, handed it to him, and said, 'Ought to be someone comin' in pretty soon. Maybe you can get a game up.'

Ray Martin nodded, took the wet beer bottle, sipped it, and examined me with the precision of a sniper about to pop off a shot. 'Sure,' he said. 'That could happen.'

He went over and sat in a chair by the wall and drank his beer and kept his eye on me, one hand in his baggy pants pocket. I turned back to the game, and Donald leaned over close and said, 'He didn't take that well. He thought it was some kind of crack.'

'I meant it as a crack,' I said.

'I know. And he took it as a crack.'

'You think I'm worried?'

Donald's face changed a little. He licked his lips. I thought his lower jaw shook. 'No. I'm not worried about you. I know you can take care of yourself.'

I didn't believe him altogether. I had seen that spark of doubt in his eyes, and it annoyed me. I didn't like him thinking I might not be as bad and tough as I thought I was. I saw the retarded kid glaring at me, his mouth hanging open, and it somehow hit me that the kid thought the same thing, though truth was, if that kid had two thoughts, they probably canceled each other out.

I gave Ray Martin a glance, just to show him my ball sack hadn't shrunk, and his stare was still locked on me. I won't lie to you, I was feeling brave, but there was something about the way he looked at me that clawed its way down inside of me. I had never seen anyone with that kind of look, and I wrote it off to the way his face was and that no matter what he was thinking and no matter where he was looking, he'd look like that. Hell, his old mother probably looked like that; she probably had to tie a pork chop around her neck to get fucked.

I peeked at Rugger. He was looking at me, too, but with a different kind of look, like someone watching a dog darting across the highway in front of an eighteen-wheeler, wondering how it was going to turn out. I thought maybe he was hoping I'd make it. When he and my father were kids, my daddy had been on his side in an oil-field fight that had become a kind of Marvel Creek legend. Him and dad against six others, and they had won, and in style, sending two of their foes to the hospital. I guess, through my dad, that gave me and the old man a kind of connection, though now that I look back on it, he wasn't that old. Probably in his forties then, balding, with a hard potbelly, arms that looked as if they had been pumped full of air, legs too short and thin for the bulk of his upper body - a barrel supported by reeds.

This concern and Donald's doubt didn't set well with me, and it made me feel all the more feisty. I was about to say something smart to Ray Martin, when the front door opened and a man about thirty came in. He was wearing khaki pants and a plaid shirt and a blue-jean jacket and tie- up boots. He was as dark as Ray Martin was blond and pale. 'How're y'all?' he said. He sounded like someone who had just that day stepped off the farm for the first time and had left his turnips outside. I looked out through the front door, which was glass with a roll-down curtain curled above it, and parked next to the curb I could see a shiny new Impala. It wasn't a car that looked like it went with the fella, but it was his.

Rugger nodded at him, and the fella said, 'I was wonderin' you could tell me how to get to Tyler?' Rugger told him, and then the hick asked, 'You got any food to sell here?'

'Some potato chips, peanuts,' Rugger said. 'Got a Coke machine. We don't fry no hamburgers or nothin'.'

'I guess I'll just have some peanuts then.'

Rugger went over and pulled a package off the rack, and the hick paid for them. He went to the Coke machine and lifted the lid and reached down in the cold water and threaded a cola through the little metal maze that led to where you pulled it out after putting in your money. You don't see those kinds of machines any more, but for a while, back in the sixties, they were pretty popular.

He pulled the cap off with the opener on the side of the box and turned around and said, 'Ain't nothin' like a store-bought Co-Cola,' as if there were any other kind. He swigged about half the drink in one gulp, pulled it down and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and tore open his bag of peanuts with his teeth and poured them into the Coke bottle. The salt made the soda foam a little. He swigged that and chewed on the wet peanuts and came over and watched us play for a moment.

'I've played this game,' he said, showing me some crunched peanuts on his teeth.

'Yeah,' I said. 'Well, we got a full table.'

'I see that. I do. I'm just sayin' I know how. My old pappy taught me how to play. I like it. I'm pretty good too.'

'Well, good for you,' I said. 'Did your old pappy teach you not to bother folks when they're playin'?'

He smiled, looked a little wounded. 'Yes, he did. I apologize. '

'Hey, you,' Ray Martin called.

We all looked.

'You want to play some pool?' he said to the hayseed. 'I'll play you.'

'Sure, I'll play,' the hayseed said, shrugging his shoulders. 'But I warn you, sometimes I like to play for nickels and such.'

Ray Martin stretched his razor-thin lips and grinned those sugar-cube teeth. 'That's all right, yokel. We'll play for such, as you call it.'

'I reckon I am a bit of a yokel,' said the fella, 'but I prefer to be called Ross. That's what my old mama named me.'

'Say she did?' Ray Martin said. 'All right, then, Ross, I'll ask you somethin'. You know how to play anything other than Stripes and Solids? You shoot straight pool?'

'I know how it's done,' Ross said.

'Good. Let's you and me knock 'em around.'

It wasn't a very exciting game. Ross got to break on the flip of a coin, and he managed to knock the cue ball in the hole right off, without so much as sending the ball's shadow in the direction of any of his targets.

Ray Martin took his shoot, and he cleared about four balls before he missed. Ross shot one in with what looked like mostly a lucky shot, and then he missed, and then Ray Martin ran what was left. They had bet a dollar on the game, and Ross paid up.

'You're good,' Ross said.

'I've heard that,' Ray Martin said. 'You want to go again?'

'I don't know.'

'Sure you do. You want to get that dollar back, don't you?'

Ross scratched the side of his nose then shifted his testicles with one hand, as if that would help him make a decision, and said, 'I reckon . . . Hell, all right. I'll bet you that dollar and two more.'

'A high roller.'

'I got paid; I can spare a little.'

Ray Martin grinned at him as if he were a wolf that had just found an injured rabbit caught up in the briars.

By now we weren't shooting any more, just leaning against the wall watching them, not really knowing how to play straight pool but pretending we did, acting like we knew what was going on.

The game results were similar to the first. Ray Martin chalked his cue while Ross dug a few bucks out of his wallet and paid up. Ray Martin called out, 'Hey, Retard, get over here and rack these balls. You keep them racked, I'll give you a quarter. You don't, I'll give you a kick in the ass.'

The retard racked the balls. Ross said, 'I don't know I want to play any more.'

'Scared?' Ray Martin asked.

'Well, I know a better pool player when I see one.'

'How about one more?' Ray Martin said. 'Just one more game and we'll throw in the towel.'

Ross pursed his lips and looked like he wished he were back on the farm, maybe fucking a calf.

'Hell, you can spare another two or three dollars, can't you?' Ray Martin said.

'I guess,' Ross said, and did that lip-pursing thing again. 'But I tell you what: you want to go another game, let's go ahead and play it bigger. I ain't been winnin', but I'm gonna bet you can't do three in a row. My pappy always said bet on the third in a row 'cause that's your winner.'

'He rich?' Ray Martin asked.

'Well, no,' Ross said.

Ray Martin laughed a little, a sharp little laugh like a dog barking. 'That's all right; even someone mostly wrong has got to be right now and again.'

'Very well, then,' Ross said, 'I'm gonna trust my old pappy. I'll bet you . . . say, ten dollars.'

'That's bold.'

'Yeah, and I'm about to change my mind, now that I think about it.'

'Oh, no,' Ray Martin said. 'You made the offer.'

'Now that I think about it, it was stupid of me,' Ross said. 'I guess I was feelin' kind of full of piss and vinegar. How about we drop it? My old pappy ain't even right when he says it's gonna rain.'

'No. You're on. Retard's got 'em racked. Come on, country boy, let's shoot.'

Of course, when it got right down to it, we were all country boys, just some of us lived in town, as if in disguise, but this Ross, he was a regular turd knocker. He tried to get out of it, said, 'Heck, I'll pay you a dollar to forget it. I shouldn't have bet anything. I ain't really no bettin' kind of man. I'm actin' bigger than my goldarn britches.'

'You welchin' on a bet, mister?' Ray Martin said, and when he said it, he laid the pool cue on the table and stepped close to Ross. 'You welchin'?'

'No. I'm not welchin'. I'm just tryin' to pay my way out so as I can get out cheaper.'

Ray Martin shook his head. 'Pick up your cue, farmer. You're in.'

Ross lost the coin toss on the break, and Ray Martin started out good, went for several shots before he missed. Ray Martin leaned on his pool cue then and looked smug. Ross picked up his cue, studied the table, shook his head, said, 'I'll give it a try.'

His first shot was a doozy. He busted two balls, and both of them went into pockets. He said, 'Now that's somethin'. Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.' And then he started to shoot again. He didn't miss. Not one shot. When he finished, he looked up, surprised. 'Maybe my old pappy was right.'

Ray Martin paid Ross the money as if the bills he was peeling out of his wallet were strips of his own skin, and then he insisted on another game. Ross said he'd had enough, that he'd had a lucky run, but Ray Martin jumped the price up to fifty dollars, and after a bit of haggling, they went at it. Ross got the flip, and he started shooting. He didn't miss a shot, and once he even jumped the cue ball over another ball to make a shot. I'd never seen anything like it. The way he moved then was different. There was a fluid sort of way he had of going around the table, nothing like the gangly moves he'd shown before, and his face had changed as well: it was dark with concentration, and there was a sparkle in his eye, as if he were actually powered by electricity.

When he was finished, he said, 'I'm gettin' better.'

'You sure are,' Ray Martin said.

'I guess I could play another game, you want,' Ross said.

Ray Martin shook his head and said, 'You don't get that much better that quick, and seems to me you ain't talkin' slow as you were before. You sound a little uptown to me.'

'Well, a Co-Cola and a good game perks me,' Ross said. 'I guess it's the sugar.'

Ray Martin's eyes narrowed and his forehead wrinkled. 'You're a hustler. You hustled me.'

Ross looked as if he had just received a blow. 'I can't believe you're talkin' like that. You wanted to play. I tried to quit. I tried to pay out on you.'

'You were playin' me,' Ray Martin said. 'You and that car. That ain't no car like a cracker would have. I should have known. You ain't from around here. You're a pool-hall hustler. You're makin' the towns, ain't you?'

'I'm just a man likes a good contest now and again,' Ross said, 'and I've had a lucky day.'

'Tell you somethin',' Ray Martin said, 'your goddamned luck just run out.' And then Ray Martin's hand dipped into his pocket. We saw a flash of silver, and Ross made a face, and Ray Martin's little cheap Saturday-night special coughed, and we all jumped, and then Ross, who was still holding the pool cue, dropped it, fanned his right knee out to the side, then collapsed as if someone had opened a trapdoor beneath him. The way he fell, the way he crumpled, there wasn't any doubt he was dead. A little hole in his forehead began to ooze blood. The air filled with the stench of what Ross had left in his pants.

Rugger said, 'Oh, hell.'

The retard said, 'You hit him right 'tween the eyes, and he done shit on himself.'

Ray Martin turned and looked at me and my friends. We were as quiet as the walls around us. He pointed the gun in my direction. 'You,' he said, 'you look in his pockets, see you can find his keys.'

I hesitated only a moment, and Rugger said, 'I got it.' Rugger went over and pushed the guy around on the floor so that he could get to his pockets easy, found the keys, held them up, shook them.

'Now my money, and his too,' Ray Martin said. 'I'm claimin' some interest.'

Rugger got the man's money and gave it to Ray Martin, who folded it up and shoved it in the front pocket of his jeans. He tossed the keys on the pool table.

'All right,' Ray Martin said, turning back to me. 'I want you, tough guy, you and no one else to take those keys and go outside and unlock the trunk of his car, and then I want you back in here faster than a bunny fucks, you understand? Otherwise, you go in the trunk with him after I shoot your balls off. You got me, dry fuck?'

'Yeah,' I said, and when I spoke, my mouth was dust-dry. The word came out more like a cough. This wasn't some scuffle in the halls at school, some after-school fist-fight at the Dairy Queen. This was the real thing. This was the world where real tough guys lived, and I wasn't one of them.

I took the keys and went outside and unlocked the trunk of the Impala and lifted it up and went back inside. 'Give me them keys,' Ray Martin said. I gave them to him. He said, 'I don't like nobody likes to cheat me. I got rules. Don't cheat me, don't hang with niggers, and don't let women tell you what to do. Keep your hands away from my wallet. And don't never back down. Them's my rules. He broke one of them.'

'You didn't have to shoot him,' Rugger said. 'We could have just beat his ass and got your money back.'

'You got him right 'tween the eyes,' the retard said, suddenly overcome again with Ray Martin's marksmanship.

'Shut up, Retard,' Rugger said. 'Now we got a mess.'

'Mess can get cleaned up,' Ray Martin said. He looked at Donny. 'You, nickel dick, go over there and lock the door and pull the blind down. Now.'

Donald pulled the blind down over the glass and locked the door. Ray Martin waved the gun at Donald and said, 'When I tell you, you look out there see ain't no one comin'. Someone's comin', you close the door and lock it. Ain't no one comin', you say so, and don't be wrong. Got me?'

'Yes, sir,' Donald said, as if he were speaking to a teacher.

'You, tough guy,' he said to me, 'you acted like you wanted some of my action. You still wantin' it?'

'No,' I said.

'No, huh. That the way you talk to me? You heard how your friend spoke to me. Let me hear some of that.'

'No, sir,' I said.

'Now you're talkin'. Stay sharp, I might need you to wipe my butt with your tongue. But right now, you get hold of this fucker's legs, and you,' he said to Lee, 'you get his head, and you boys take him out and put him in the trunk of his car and close the lid and come back in, and don't screw around.'

We picked up the body, and a hair-covered fragment from the back of his skull fell against the tile with a sound like pottery being dropped. As we lifted him, I found myself drawn to his face. Ross's eyes were wide open, and I saw then that everything he had been or might have been, all of his plans and memories, dreams and schemes, they had fled out through the hole in the back of his skull, across the floor in a puddle of blood and brain fragments, a piece of his skull. The body was empty. It was in that moment I knew something I had never really known before. Oh, I knew it on an intellectual basis. I knew we all died. But this wasn't like on TV. This guy didn't just look like a guy lying down. He was truly dead. Looking at him, in that moment, I knew there was nothing beyond the moment, nothing beyond our time on Earth, that dead was dead, and I had never wanted to live more than I did in that moment with my eyes locked on Ross's face. Hell, he wasn't Ross any more. He was just meat. Dead meat.

I got ahold of Ross's feet. The mess in his pants smelled strong. Lee got his shoulders, and we lifted him and carried him toward the door. When we were about there, Donald unlocked and opened the door and looked out, then pushed the door wide open. Me and Lee put Ross in the trunk of the Impala, curled him around his spare tyre, and closed the lid. We went back inside. It was all like a dream.

'All right, now,' Ray Martin said, 'lock the door.'

'What now?' Rugger said, lighting a cigar. The smell of it wafted over the stink Ross had left.

'Get the retard to wipe the floor up . . . but not yet. The backseat of that Impala, it's still got room.' Ray Martin looked at us.

I said, 'Wait a minute.'

'We ain't gonna tell nobody,' Donald said.

'Nobody,' Lee said, just in case Donald hadn't stated our case firmly enough.

'Hell,' Ray Martin said, 'I know that. Dead men, they don't talk.'

I didn't realize it, but I had backed up against the pool table. I remember it crossing my mind to grab a pool cue, a pool ball, anything. But I knew I wouldn't. I wouldn't do anything. I couldn't move. It was like I was glued to the floor. I thought maybe I was about to do in my pants what Ross had done in his.

'I know these boys,' Rugger said softly. 'They'd be missed. Their folks know they're here.'

That was a lie, but it was a beautiful lie, and I clung to it, hoping.

'You can tell them they was here but they left,' Ray Martin said. 'I don't want to take chances. And this one,' he said, pointing the Saturday-night special at me. 'I don't like him. I didn't like him soon as I saw him.'

'I know that,' Rugger said, and I saw that when he pulled his cigar out of his mouth his hand was shaking. Even he, a man who had fought a mess of oil-field guys with my daddy, he knew Ray Martin was beyond just trouble. Guys like him had invented trouble; they had given it its name. 'This boy here,' Rugger said, 'his daddy and me once fought a bunch of oil-field workers together.'

'What's that mean to me?' Ray Martin said.

'It means you and me is kin,' Rugger said, 'and I'm asking a favor. It's not like you didn't get your money back.'

Ray Martin went quiet. You could almost see his brain working behind his skull. 'All right,' he said. 'I wasn't gonna do nothin'. Not really. Well, maybe with the tough guy here.' He waved the gun at me. 'But here's the thing, and you little turds listen tight as a nun's ass, 'cause you don't, you'll be seein' me and this here gun, maybe a knife or a tyre tool . . . : You didn't see a fuckin' thing.'

'No. Nothin',' I said.

'What you gonna do with the hayseed?' Rugger asked.

'He wasn't no hayseed. He was a goddamned pool shark. I'm gonna drive him out to the river bottoms. I know a place you can drive that car off, and it'll go deep. And you, Rugger, you're gonna follow me. Maybe we ought to pop the retard too, put him in the backseat.'

Rugger shook his head. 'He's all right. He won't remember nothin' come tomorrow mornin'. Hell, I got to tell him when to shit.'

'You got him right 'tween the eyes,' the retard said.

'Shut up,' Rugger said. 'You go on and sit down on that stool and shut up.'

The retard hung his head and went and sat on the stool.

'You can get you a Co-Cola,' Rugger said, and the retard got a soda and popped it and went and sat back on the stool and sipped it.

Ray Martin said, 'I don't know, man. I'm thinking on it some more, and I don't know I should let these asswipes go.'

'They ain't gonna say nothin',' Rugger said. 'You boys . . . you ain't gonna say nothin', are you?' 'About what?' Donny said.

'There you go,' Rugger said.

Ray Martin put the gun in his pocket and said, 'Maybe.'

'The retard finishes his Coke,' Rugger said, 'we'll have him wipe up that blood, spray some air freshener around. You drive the fella's car to the bottoms, Ray Martin, and I'll follow. We'll get rid of him. You boys, you go on out the back way. And don't you never say nothin'. Nothin'. Not a fuckin' word.'

'No, sir,' I said, 'we won't,' and then I looked at Ray Martin and said, 'We won't say anything, sir. I promise.'

Ray Martin grinned at me. His teeth reminded me of an animal trap. 'Go on then, punks, before I bend you over this pool table and fuck you in the ass, one at a time.'

We went quickly out the back door and didn't say a word, just split and went three different ways.

Of course, I saw Donny and Lee after that, in school, in the halls. We waved or smiled, but we didn't hang. I don't think they thought I was so tough any more. We went our own ways after that. I never went back to the pool hall. I doubt they did. I thought about telling someone about what happened, but didn't, and to the best of my knowledge, neither did Donny or Lee. I had nightmares. I still have nightmares.

I saw Rugger around town a few times and nodded at him. He always looked at me like he'd never seen me before, and he never came back to the garage. Ray Martin I never saw again, and I'm not bothered by that. I never even asked anyone about him, and I think I heard he was in prison somewhere for something or another. I think about Ross a lot, that face, that empty face, all the life there was and ever would be gone from it, leaving the rest of us aware and alone, waiting.