If a guy studied culinary arts, would every one he ran into later in life embody a collapsed soufflé or some other cooking catastrophe? Stroker wondered because he had studied psychology back when he was in college and, ever since, his world had been invaded by one wacko after another. A reap what you sew kind of thing, he figured.
Golfers drove him crazy with their ritualistic behaviors, time-consuming pre-shot routines and idiotic superstitions which was why he had tossed out his clubs a dozen years ago in favor of the more serene game of pocket billiards.
Not to say the pool room was exempt from the intrusion of a variety of mental cases. It wasn’t. But, with a little luck you could avoid them most of the time. Of course, there were exceptions who would not be ignored, who insisted on getting in your face, nitwits who forced you to deal with their lunacy. Like Chris “O.C.” Delaney. O.C.D. had a compulsion that required everything in the pool room to be in its proper place – chalk, cues, stools, bridges, racks, ashtrays, TVs, everything. One day, not too long ago, he claimed that, while he had been circling the room noting the placement of various objects within his purview, Stroker had appropriated a bridge from his table transferring it to the table where he was playing. Stroker, who had been playing by himself, and who never used a bridge anyway when playing by himself, just looked at O.C. Delaney and said, “Are you out of your fucking mind, asshole?” And that was the end of that afternoon’s therapy session. No charge.
Early on in his working life, Stroker had driven cabs and limos, his income relying to a large extent on tips, so he was always conscientious about taking care of the girls who worked the counter at the pool room figuring a tip was one way of making their days brighter. He’d started off giving them a buck a day which seemed reasonable since he never ordered anything to eat and was spending less than two dollars on time. But the more he thought about it, a dollar tip seemed pretty paltry seeing as this was the 21st century and you couldn’t get much of anything for a buck. So, he raised it to two, boosting it to three or four on occasion. He tried not to be predictable, remembering back to psychology studies indicating intermittent schedules of reinforcement produced the best results. Then, at Christmas, he’d hit each girl with a ten. For this attention, he didn’t expect much in return, just a thanks and a smile. That was reward enough.
Whenever he hit Cookie, his favorite of all the girls, with a deuce she’d tell him he made her day. C’mon, he’d say, with two bucks? I wish it was more. Then, she’d say, really that’s the first I got today. Seems like most of the other dudes stiffed her on a daily basis.
He never went to grad school which was probably a mistake inasmuch as he might have learned there how best to handle the various mental deviants he had later been confronted with. Like that day when he was returning the balls and Cloey whispered to him through clenched teeth, a look of mortal terror on her face, instructing him to look down the bar to the guy playing the video game. He’s the devil, she said. Giving you a hard time? Stroker asked. No, I mean it. I looked into his eyes and I could see it. He is the devil. What should I do? Jeez, I don’t know, said Stroker. Look in my eyes. What do you see? She leaned forward and peered into his orbs for a long couple of seconds. Finally, after considerable consideration, she said, Green. Thank God, he said, bidding her a swift adieu. That was the last time he saw Cloey. She was canned. He didn’t ask why, but he suspected the devil had a hand in it.
Tina was one of those gals who called everybody Sweetie, Sweetheart or Honey, something he got used to in time. Most days he’d counter with a Darling or Sweetie Pie of his own and they got along pretty good. But, sometimes, when he hit her with a deuce she’d make a big thing about it and wrap her arms around him and give him a big squeeze which made him feel a little uncomfortable since it was just the smile and thanks he was shooting for. You don’t have to do that, he said one day. I’m not paying for your services. Well, this must have pissed her off because she wouldn’t take his money for a couple weeks forcing him to leave his tip laying on the counter while she lit out for the far end of the bar. Eventually, things returned to normal and when she started squeezing him again, he knew better than to open his mouth.
Regrettably, Tina moved on and was replaced by Jill who was so proud of her bosom she exposed as much of it as she could on a regular basis. She, too, was a Sweetie, Honey, Sweetheart kind of girl, but not in a friendly way, in a way that made Stroker a wee bit uncomfortable, like she was hitting on him and his sixty-four year old frame. Same with her hugs and squeezes. In particular, he didn’t like the way she ran her fingers up and down his arms. He thought of telling her but he realized she was just trying to be sexy and he didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t working. One day, he walks up to the counter and she looks like someone ran a hot poker up her hoo-hah. Something the matter? he asked. I’m having a panic attack, she announced. He had a vague idea of what she was going through having experienced, once upon a time, something similar behind pot and pcp. It seemed that blabbing was closely linked to her panic because she was carrying on non-stop, talking about medication and prescriptions she couldn’t get refilled because enough time hadn’t passed since her last refill and that the only reason she ran out in the first place being that she had loaned some pills to her girlfriend who, apparently, also benefited from their effects. I don’t know what to do, she cried. Call the doctor’s office again, Stroker suggested. Tell him you really need the pills. Worst he can do is say no. But she wasn’t listening. Now, she was saying how her roommate brought a couple guys home to the apartment in the middle of the night and she woke up and saw one of them standing over her and I started thinking maybe she wasn’t having a panic attack after all. Maybe, it was justifiable panic. Anyway, Stroker zigged while she zagged, and left her to her own devices. That was the last time he saw Jill.
Jill was replaced by Heather “The Sharpshooter” Remington, a young lady with pro tour aspirations as her nickname, premature as it might have been, indicated. It took a week or so before her name popped up on his facebook wall and he realized that she was already one of his facebook friends. This was added incentive for him to be nice to her, so when he found out she was selling sculptures of poolplayers like Johnny Archer and Earl Strickland on the internet, he critiqued her website since web sites, especially, pool web sites, were his business.
He saw a couple problems right off, the main one being that not once in the text, in the code or in the meta tag description or key words was the word “billiards” used. There were references to pool sculpture and pool art and pool prints made from the preliminary sketches, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t going to cut it. Search engines, in general, associated the word "pool" with those pits Jethro Beaudine used to refer to as cement ponds, and not with the game of pocket billiards. Next day, Stroker mentioned this to Heather figuring he’d give her the benefit of his expertise. Just google “pool art” he told her and you’ll come up with a bunch of stuff about swimming pools. You have to use the word "billiards." Unfortunately, she was not at all receptive to his input. Her friend who was working on the site was an expert, blah blah blah. And, he knew all there was to know, blah blah blah. Some expert, thought Stroker, whose site drew more traffic in a day than hers would in six months. But, he didn’t say another word on the subject. He just went home, got on facebook and unfriended her.
It must have taken her a couple weeks to realize he had unfriended her. It seems another of his fb friends mentioned a link he had posted which she soon discovered wasn’t available to her. Tough. Up until then, things had been going as smooth as always – Stroker leaving her a couple bucks, her responding with thanks and a smile. But, suddenly, she had developed a nasty attitude and was giving him the cold shoulder, and showing no gratitude whatsoever, which was okay with him since he had made up his mind to stiff her hence forth. Then, he noticed that others were paying a lot of attention to their interactions, like they were making sure he didn’t do or say something improper. It didn’t take him long to realize what that was about – hell knows no fury. Of course, there was no basis for these suspicions, but the fact that anyone could even momentarily give credence to anything this whacked-out broad would say was beyond reason.
In the three weeks he had known her, she had moved on from the pool art website, to eBay auctions, to Texas Hold’em, to betting on the dogs, to hemp fashions, all with the same intense enthusiasm and lack of results. It finally dawned on him that she just might be bi-polar and, surprise, off her meds. Just his luck.
Meanwhile, ads kept popping up on his facebook page inviting him to pursue a graduate degree in psychology online. No thanks. He wasn’t interested, but he was considering taking a cooking course, maybe Soufflé 101.