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New Fiction: "Sunday"

Illustration by John Lang

It started up again.

Illustration by John Lang


You really don’t remember,

Was it something that he said?

Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?

Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’?

The first time Rudy went up to the jukebox and found “Gloria,” the one by Laura Branigan, it was simply annoying. We would have preferred Van Halen or The Who or something. Shit, even the Police would have been better. When he played it again, it was twice as annoying. The third time it came on, everyone in the bar started to get annoyed. But Rudy didn’t care. He went up and played it again, grinning deviously. I gotta admit, the more he did it, the funnier it got. And when he kept playing it over and over and over and over, the gesture slowly morphed into some sort of zoned-out Andy Kaufman stunt, an epic gesture of fuck-you-ness. Of course, the drunker we got, the more epic the stunt became, and we were getting very drunk. We kind of knew we could get our asses kicked over this, but by now Tiny, Brownie, Trip, Les, Hick, me and, of course, Rudy, we were deep in it. Rudy cued up “Gloria” for about the 10th time in a row and we ordered another pitcher of Old Milwaukee, shouting out every word. Oblivious. The song was all that mattered.


If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?

You don’t have to answer

Leave them hangin’ on the line, oh-oh-oh, calling Gloria


The bar was a tough spot out on Highway 12B, a good few miles past our normal sphere of influence. We ended up there on one of those Sundays when there’s nothing to do except grab a case of beer and drive around the hilly countryside. Mostly, it was barren and still farmland. I remembered reading somewhere that this was the poorest county in the Northeast, and it didn’t take a keen observer of the human condition to see that the rest of the patrons of this establishment hadn’t been as blessed by fortune as we had. Still, we weren’t as blessed as most of the shits at our school, who arrived in their hand-me-down Saabs or Beemers or Camaros even. Sometimes they weren’t hand-me-downs. No, we were only here because the athletic department or Uncle Sam was footing most of the bill. And we had a few hard knocks still fresh enough to show we weren’t any prep-school punks.

So there was something defiant in the repeated playing of this song. It was some kind of statement that we all were in on, a way of signaling to the locals drinking their way through another bleak day that we weren’t going to walk on any eggshells around them; weren’t going to be overly humble in the face of their working-class righteousness. If they cared to go there, that is. Besides, we’d crossed the line about five playings ago. We weren’t about to let a few hard looks stop our quest for whatever stoned transcendence could be gotten from endless loops of Laura Branigan’s one hit.

Not to mention, we put a lot stock in Tiny, who went about 240 and looked like he was 30 years old, already with that man’s beard. I wasn’t any pushover, either. My old man made sure of that, took me out back and taught me how to box after that first tussle I got into back in first grade. Made sure there wouldn’t be any crying to Daddy. Being the new kid all the time because of all the moving around, you had to learn to hold your own. I got pretty good at it. The Catholic school champ. Took poor Petey Delaney apart in front of everyone that time the Brothers made us fight. I knew I was going too far, but the crowd had got to me. Besides, that bully had it coming. As for Rudy, always the instigator, he was brash, but didn’t pack much punch. Still, he could be counted on. Push comes to shove, so could the rest. Yeah, we weren’t working on the line or in the mills, like a lot of our friends back home, but we weren’t soft, either.


Gloria (Gloria), I think they got your number (Gloria)

I think they got the alias (Gloria) that you’ve been living under (Gloria)


Brownie came back with a round of tequila shots and Rudy headed up to the box again. He had an evil grin on his face.

 

“Don’t do it; don’t do it,” we cried, but we wanted him to.

“I put it on for five more,” he said when he came back.

The bartender didn’t care. Why would he? We were blowing our collective work-study wads in one shot.

The guys around the pool table, dressed in standard Carhartt work gear were getting pretty agitated. Cast us some evil eyes. But we went right back at it, singing every lyric at the top of our lungs. It’s a free country, right? There was about a foot and a half of dirty snow on the ground. Outside, semis hauled ass up to the Northway on their way to Albany or east to Rochester. Trip pulled out the last of the blow he’d scored from some rich-kid fraternity and cut it up on the table. We all took our turns. Not much else to do up here in the middle of fucking nowhere.


And you really don’t remember, was it something that he said?

Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?


I thought for a minute about Sara. We’d been together the night before. Went to see Top Gun at the town cinema. It was some corny shit, but she liked Tom Cruise. Said I looked like him. I said, sure, if I were a foot shorter. She told me I was just jealous. Sara was one of those Upper-Eastside girls at school, who seemed to have lived five livesto my one. Captain of the tennis team and shit. Junior League. I was in some dangerous territory with her. Word was her ex, the fullback from Greenwich, was gunning for me. She told me they’d been in love. I believed her. I didn’t know about love yet. Word had spread around campus that she was on the pill. I must have spent months just watching her, especially the way she walked — like she had somewhere to be — before I even spoke a word to her. And when we did finally speak, she started the conversation, bugging me to borrow a pen. I pretended I didn’t hear her the first time, and when she asked again I just tossed her mine without looking up so it would seem like I didn’t give a shit. A while after that, she asked me to her sorority’s formal. Everyone made a big deal out of it, her being older and all. I was way over my head. She said she wanted me to go home with her over Thanksgiving. I was terrified. Her folks were rich. I didn’t have any fancy clothes. She drove a gold 280Z. I liked driving it. We picked up her ex on the way up the hill to the quad one morning. He asked if I was getting in the back. Fucking car hardly had a back. I should have told him to fuck off, but I didn’t. He was a senior. Sara was what you’d call worldly. I’d never even been to a nice restaurant, except the Steak and Ale on prom night. Here, in this bar, though, it felt safe, even with those guys giving us the evil eye. I wanted to tell them they had it wrong, that we were just like them, save a few breaks.

 

Next thing I know, Les is calling me up to the pool table. Apparently he’d put up some quarters and it was our game. Pool was Les’s thing. We’d all seen him run tables before and leave some poor slobs wondering what had happened to them. But this here wasn’t any frat party at SU. This was the real deal and we were crossing over into their turf. I wasn’t so bad at pool myself. Could get on a run, but it all depended on whether or not I got a rhythm going. Still, despite everything, I was feeling okay. I looked back at Tiny on the way up to the table and he gave me the nod. I was now officially taking one for the team. Les was as cocky as ever.

“What do you guys want to play for?” he said.

The two guys holding the table were the kinds of rural cowboys you found out here, with the handlebar mustaches and flannel shirts you’d expect. They looked at each other for a minute, like they were thinking the same thing, and then the bigger and meaner-looking guy said, “How about if we win, you college boys buy us a pitcher and then beat it back to where you come from.”

 

“No problem,” Les said. “And if we win, you buy us a pitcher and sing along with us.”

They checked with each other again, registering a little disgust, and nodded.

“Okay, then,” said the bigger guy. “Rack ’em.”

The smaller of the two broke hard, scattering the balls across the table and sending the cue ball sailing off the table. It was an intimidating move, but it didn’t yield anything but a scratch.

Les lined the cue up and sank three low balls quickly before running out of shots. He smiled at me as if to say, no problem. I wasn’t as sure. The bigger guy took a difficult bank shot and sunk it. A couple of local gals sitting around the table started to perk up and pay attention. Hick and Brownie came over to watch. The rest of the guys stayed at the table drinking and singing.


A-ha-ha, a-ha-ha, Gloria, how’s it gonna go down?

Will you meet him on the main line, or will you catch him on the rebound?

Will you marry for the money, take a lover in the afternoon?

Feel your innocence slipping away, don’t believe it’s comin’ back soon


The big guy didn’t miss a beat and promptly sunk all of his high balls except the nine, which was stuck against the bumper in a bad spot. Now it was my turn. The table wasn’t lined up good for me. I had a tough cut to get the three ball in the side pocket. I missed. I didn’t leave the smaller guy much of a shot, though. He’d have to hit the angle just right on the nine ball to get it in the corner pocket. He missed too and swore he normally makes that shot, but nobody normally makes that shot. Still, that nine ball was sitting pretty for his partner. Les would have to be sharp. He lit a cigarette and let it dangle in the corner of his mouth.

“Smoke in the eye,” he told me and winked.

That was Les’s signal that he was ready to run the table. I wondered what Sara would think about all this. She didn’t really understand these things. She thought smoking was disgusting and didn’t even really drink much, and when she did it was wine, of all things. But she understood other stuff much better than me. Like sex. I was so scared of her and her attitude about sex, like it was no big deal or something, that it took me a few times with her to even get a hard-on. When I finally got in there, I came in about five seconds. She laughed. It wasn’t cruel, though. It made me laugh too. I didn’t bother telling her that except for that half-crazy girl who kept following me around in Daytona last year, I was a virgin. Before long, though, things started changing in some way I couldn’t fully grasp. I know I started hanging with the boys a little less, and they called me pussy whipped and shit, but it wasn’t just that. I mean, sometimes we stayed in and made popcorn and watched TV and it was okay. I mean ... I liked it. I didn’t even drink that much around her. But sometimes I didn’t like the way she treated me, like I was a project, buying me that blazer for the dance and shit. Teaching me how to eat proper. Always fixing something. Hell, I knew how to play craps, used to run numbers with Pap’s crew, and I could drink a boilermaker without grimacing. I even managed to get into this damn school without her help. Whatever.

Les was on a roll. He cleaned our table up fast but had a tough angle on the eight ball. He tried walking it along the bumper into the corner but came up short. Les let out a sigh and shrugged. He’d handledhimself well and won some grudging looks of approval from our opponents. If it came back around to me, it’d be no picnic. I half hoped it wouldn’t. The bigger guy took his time chalking up his cue stick and looking over the table. He knew what he had to do and took a good approach to his shot, lining up that nine ball and easily sinking it, but the eight ball was stuck against the back bumper. He tried to bank it all the way back but missed. Now it was up to me.

“Don’t miss,” said the shorter guy. “You won’t get another shot.” He was probably right.

My hands were sweaty and I went for the talcum powder. Then I asked Les for a smoke. Might as well go down with some style. The smoke was rising into my eye and everything went still. I didn’t look up to see who was watching. I remembered what my father told me when we’d end up shooting pool down at the Duquesne Club on those Sundays when I’d drive him around while he drank. “Easy on the backstroke, even on the follow-through, keep the object ball in your sights.”

   

Funny how I missed the old man. I didn’t at first. But I did now sometimes. When I had the eight ball lined up, I calmly eased back my stick and took my shot, my father’s words in my ears. When it dropped into the corner pocket I just hung there over the table and took a draw on my cigarette and brought it back into my hand before I let the smoke out up into the air.

Our opponents swore and shook their heads. “Lucky shot,” said the smaller guy. They started to reach for their wallets.

“Forget it,” I said. “This one’s on us.”

I told Les that I got it and went up to the bar and ordered a pitcher and four shots of tequila. I filled up our opponents’ mugs and the four of us clinked shot glasses and downed the hot liquor. Getting shit-faced on a Sunday was something we all understood. I told them to come over and join us. They said, “What the hell.” Introductions were made and Rudy went back up to the jukebox.

“One more time?” he asked.

“At least,” I said.


And you really don’t remember, was it something that he said?

Are the voices in your head calling, Gloria?

Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’?

If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?

You don’t have to answer

Leave them hangin’ on the line, oh-oh-oh, calling Gloria

The whole bar was singing now. I kind of wished Sara was here.

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