Daniel Goodman

daniel ross goodman - issue 75


Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America in New York, and is studying English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. A contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard, he has published in numerous academic and popular journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, Haaretz, and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. His short stories have appeared in aaduna (“Prélude à l'après-midi d'un rhinoplastie), The Cortland Review (“The Tryst”), Bewildering Stories (“The End of Days,” winner of the 2015 Spitzer Prize and Mariner Award), Calliope (forthcoming, Fall 2017), and here in The Acentos Review (“Solids and Stripes”).



Solids and Stripes

         “Alright, rack ‘em up, stah boy, let’s go,” said Hans’s Uncle Rick, who had just come home from work. “Just one quick game uh billiahds befow’uh dinnuh. Let’s play.”

         Hans placed the triangular wooden ball rack at the bottom half of the table and carefully arranged the billiard balls in a solid-then-stripe, solid-then-stripe arrangement, except for the eight-ball, which he placed in the center of the rack.

         “You go ahead and break, boy,” said Hans’s Uncle Rick, as each of them pulled out cue sticks from the wall rack that was mounted on the living room’s western wall. Above the rack was a large aluminum-framed cork bulletin board at which Hans would look from time to time when he was bored.

         Hans placed the scuffed, pearl-white cue ball in the center of the top-half of the table, locked his cue stick into the vertical, ready-to-fire position, and thrust the thick end of the cue stick forward with a swift, strong motion of his right hand. A loud thwack-clap-clatter sound could be heard throughout the house as the triangular stack of billiard balls was broken apart like an exploding star, sending its solid dust and striped gas across the pool-table-sized galaxy. “Lucky break theh, boy,” said his Uncle Rick, nodding his head sarcastically. The red number-three ball of solids had broken off the stack and rolled into the corner-right pocket. “Looks like yow’uh solids.”

         Hans glanced attentively around the pool table. A constellation of glossy balls, gleaming under the three matte-green pool table lights like the Orion nebula, still lay closely grouped together in the center of the table. He hadn’t done a particularly good job of breaking up the triangular stack; at eleven years old, he still wasn’t strong enough to administer an opening break that was forceful enough to scatter the balls around the table. Perhaps he had been lucky, he thought; he almost never got any balls in off of the break.

         It was a dreary, bitingly cold late-afternoon in Starkfield, and Hans was wearing thick woolen socks, off-white sweat pants, and his favorite forest-green Boston Celtics sweatshirt, which had a picture of the team’s logo—an Irishman leaning on a short cane with his left hand while twirling a basketball with his right index finger—embroidered in the center of the sweatshirt. He was a thin, fair-skinned boy, of average height for his age, with a soft, round face and a thick head of light, straw-blond hair that was cut in a mushroom cut which hid his floppy ears and nearly covered his sky-blue eyes.

         He could clearly see that his insubstantial break had left him with very few options. The green six of solids was leaning off the edge of the cluster, but several other balls obstructed its path to the left side pocket. Hans would have to try to use the fourteen of stripes and a few other balls to spin the six-ball into the pocket. It was a tricky play, but it was his only shot.

         With his left hand lining up the thin, top end of the pool cue like a measuring stick and his right hand grasping the cue’s thick, bottom end like a parking brake, he drove the cue ball toward the six-ball. But he cut the angle too close, hitting the striped fourteen-ball instead of the six-ball, which caused the fourteen-ball to ricochet off of the central cluster and roll toward the right, coming to a slow, sliding stop centimeters away from the right side pocket.

         “You really set me up theh quite nicely, boy,” said his Uncle Rick, letting out an amused chuckle. “Sehves you right, after that god-awful lucky break.”

         His Uncle Rick, a left-handed player, used his right hand’s fat fingers to line up the thin top end of the pool cue while his left hand grasped the cue’s thick bottom end. With a tickled grin on his wrinkle-riven face, he lightly struck the cue ball and pushed the fourteen of stripes into the side pocket like a golfer tapping a two-inch put into the cup.

         Since it was Uncle Rick’s shot again, Hans waited patiently off to the side of the table. His Uncle Rick, who walked with a slight stoop, ambled around the table, looking for his next shot. He was fifty-four years old, with a pale, uneven head that was almost as bare as the cue ball save for a few specks of steel-gray hair that extended in a narrow horseshoe pattern from the sides of his small, rumpled ears to the back of his head. With his dark amber eyes, he peered at the nine-ball from out of his round, wire-framed glasses which sat on his small beak nose like crow’s talons perched on a narrow branch. He was wearing his usual work clothes: beaver-brown loafers, khaki pants, and an extra-large dark-green polo shirt that was tucked into his pants and clung like a leech to his portly, soccer-ball-sized-stomach. The words “RICK’S SPORTING GOODS”, written in white, all-caps letters, were stamped on the left side of his three-button shirt; the word “Rick’s”, written in much larger font than the other two words, stood on top of the words “sporting goods” like a Colossus bestriding a narrow bridge. The apostrophe between the “K” and the “S” of “RICK’S” was made out of the image of a disembodied hand twirling a basketball with its index finger—Hans could’ve sworn that his uncle, who had redesigned the logo when he had taken over the business from Hans’s father and renamed it after himself, had copied it directly from the Celtics’ logo.

         Uncle Rick banged his cue stick into the cue ball as if he was throwing an uppercut punch at a punching bag, rocketing the cue ball from one of the table to the other in pursuit of the nine-ball of stripes. The nine-ball bounced in and out of the corner-left pocket and caromed back into the unbroken central cluster, breaking up the bundle of balls ever so slightly.

         “Ah, damnit,” muttered Uncle Rick under his breath, which, Hans noticed, smelled of scotch. “Hit the damn ball too hahd…but usually fohce is what you need in this game, right, boy? Can’t always come nice and easy like that fihst shot I had theh, or youh lucky break. Usually it’s pretty tough. You gotta fohce things, boy, you know? It ain’t about how good you ah, it’s all about how much force ya got…that’s what this game’s all about, boy.”

         Hans submissively nodded his head, looking at the table in search of his next shot. He figured that his uncle must’ve gone to the bar again after work. The purple number-four ball of solids was dangling off of the cluster like a loose-hanging grape. Hans easily picked it off, depositing it in the left corner pocket with a fluid, effortless stroke.

         “Nice shot, boy,” said Uncle Rick, as an unpleasant smirk crossed his face. He reflexively rubbed his sharp, angular, clean-shaven face with the back of his right hand. “But you’ll have to do bettuh than that to beat yuh uncle.” His voice was thick, throaty, and slightly nasal; it often sounded as if he had a wad of mucus caught in his windpipe, and he would clear his throat before every sentence with such regularity that Hans thought his uncle wouldn’t be able to speak if he didn’t do so. Even worse, for Hans, was that he spoke with a heavy Boston accent. Hans abhorred the Boston accent; he would’ve put his fingers in his ears while his uncle was speaking were he not afraid that his uncle would hit him again like he had done when Hans accidentally spilled milk on the tablecloth when he was six years old. Neither of his parents, as far as he could remember, had spoken with Boston accents, but his uncle had lived in Boston for most of his adult life until seven years ago, when he had moved back to the western end of the state to take over Hans’s father’s chain of sporting goods stores after Hans’s parents had died within one year of each other when Hans was four years old—his mother from ovarian cancer, and his father from a pulmonary embolism.

         Hans saw the orange number-five ball of solids waiting in front of the right-corner pocket like a patient pedestrian waiting to cross the street, but it was blocked by the number-fifteen ball of stripes. Hans gently tapped the cue ball, giving it just enough force to cause the fifteen-ball to bump the solid number-five ball into the pocket.

         “Beginnah’s luck is whatch’you got, boy,” said his uncle, his craggy face smeared with a half-smile half-sneer. “I don’t cay if you’ve been playin’ pool since you were fouh yeas old, you still ain’t got no haiy on your chest, that means you’e a beginnuh as fah as I’m concehned.”

         Hans, his sky-blue eyes scoping out the table like a spy plane taking aerial photographs of enemy positions, noticed that the number-two ball of solids had migrated up to the top portion of the table. It was an unusual table, his uncle’s table was: it was slightly smaller than regular size, with a playing surface bed of red felt-like cloth, an automatic ball return, a glazed wooden frame painted with a shiny black varnish, and two stainless steel support legs. Hans steered the number-two ball into the pocket with one quick, flowing motion of his right arm.

         “Yeah, that’s a good shot, boy,” said his Uncle Rick, leaning on his pool cue like the little Irishman on Hans’s sweatshirt who was leaning on his cane. “You know, not everything’s gonna come so easy to you in this life, boy. You gotta wehk foh it. And wehk haahd foh it. Lemme tell you something about hahd wehk…”

         Hans’s ears bristled at having to listen to his uncle rant about hard work for the thousandth time, and he knew there was nothing he could do to avoid having to hear it. What made it especially galling for Hans was the prickling accent with which his uncle delivered it. If only his parents had never died, Hans thought…if only those awful things had never happened, he would never have been sentenced to live with his mother’s older brother, and he would never have had to put up with Uncle Rick and his annoying speeches and his annoying accent and his annoying—but Hans luckily caught himself mid-thought. He stopped himself from thinking those sorts of thoughts before they went too far. Whenever he thought about his departed parents it did nothing for him except make him angry and sad—better not to think of them at all, Hans would tell himself.

         Hans tapped the cue ball at the solid red number-seven ball, aiming for the top corner-right pocket—but, too distracted by his uncle’s rodomontade, he put too much side-spin on the ball. The cue ball caromed into the loosened cluster at the bottom end of the table, pushing the striped number-twelve ball so close to the left-side pocket that a mere breath would’ve blown the ball in. Somehow, it didn’t fall into the hole, remaining perched on top of it like a bird standing on the edge of its nest

         “That’s what I mean, boy,” said his uncle, chalking his cue while speaking out of the corner of his mouth as if he had a pipe in it. “Not enough fohce. That’s why you gotta learn how to work hahd, boy. This world’s all about fohce. It’s a tough wehld out theh, boy, that’s foh shooyah. When I was youh age I was wehkin’ two jobs, one aftuh school and one on the weekends. Washin’ cahs in summuh-time, rakin’ leaves in the fall, pickin’ up gahbage in pahks in spring-time. And know what my wintuh job was, boy? That was the hahdest wehk of all, and I was doin’ it by the time I was eight yees old: I was goin’ dooh-to-dooh shovelin’ snow all ovuh Stahkfield. When Kennedy was inaugurated president we got one of the biggest stohms evuh, and I musta shoveled three dozen driveways that day. Didn’t even get to see my own senatuh’s presidential inauguration. That woulda been somethin’, to see that…but that’s how it goes, boy. Man was bohn to wehk. Ain’t no time for playin’ games in this world.” Uncle Rick struck the cue ball with an angry blow, sending it across the table until it hit the red-striped number-eleven ball and sent it screaming into the bottom corner-right pocket. “That’s why my sto’es ah open seven days a week. Blue laws, shmoo laws; Massachusetts used to be a tough-ass about those crap gahbage laws, but we softened ‘em up, boy, didn’t we? Because we know this wehld’s all about toughness, not about lucky-ass spohts stahs that make a million dollahs a game for just playin a gahbage spoht. Spohts ain’t real life, boy. In real life you gotta wehk seven days a week, boy, if you wanna ‘ccomplish anything in this wehld, ‘cause it ain’t gonna give it to you like you just gave me this shot.”

         He tapped home the blue-striped number-twelve ball into the left-side pocket while continuing to blow forth his Boston-accented bluster. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about, boy…you can’t give things to people in this wehld, ‘cause they shooyuh ain’t gonna give you anything. So theh ain’t no use bein’ nice. Gotta take every advantage ya got, boy, and when you don’t got any, ya gotta create yuh own—that’s what it’s all about, boy. Ain’t no fun and games out thehe, boy, lemme tell ya…”

         Uncle Rick, aggressively pushing his cue stick at the cue ball as if he was powering a battering ram through an iron door, attempted a combination shot, hitting the nine of stripes off of the fourteen of stripes and sending both across the table from right to left like a bishop’s move in chess, but neither ball fell into the hole. “That’s a case a’ bad luck theh, boy, lemme tell ya…sometimes you can have it all lined up, you play yeh hand right, you’ve got the right combination, but shit happens boy, it shooyuh does…but you’ve got to know how to create your own luck in this wehld, boy, you really do. That’s what I’ve done all my life. From the time I was a small fry yuh age—I was even younguh than you ah now when I stahted wehkin’—to wheh I am now: ownuh and operatuh uh the lahgest spohting goods retail chain in all of the Pionee’uh Valley, biggest fry in all of westuhn Mass.”

         Hans, fighting off a frustrated frown, approached the table with a deadly earnest poker face. He’d had enough of his uncle’s Boston-accented braggadocio and wanted the game to end already so that he could go do his homework and practice the new sketching techniques he’d been learning at his after-school drawing lessons. Not wanting to use the bridge because his uncle considered the bridge an unfair advantage—“if yow’uh too showt to reach the ball, then grow up, ya pipsqueak!”, his uncle had said the last time he had tried to use the bridge—he leaned into the middle of the table, carefully placed his pool cue in between two striped balls, ensuring he made no contact with them, and sent the cue ball spinning to the left side of the table, banking it off the left cushion and hitting the one-ball of solids into the top right-corner pocket.

         “Yeah, yeah…well, bank shots ah all about luck, boy, ain’t no skill in bank shots. There’s no wehk in a bank shot, no hahd wehk at all. Yuh just usin’ somethin’ to get somethin.’…that was a lucky shot there, boy, I’ll give ya that, but sometimes you get lucky, kid, that’s how it is,” his uncle muttered, wiping his nose with the back of his right hand. “But usually not, boy, usually not…not in this wehld, oh no…”

         With his nonchalant confidence growing with each stroke, Hans forcefully struck the cue ball again, this time in the opposite direction, hitting the seven-ball into the bottom left-corner pocket. He was beginning to feel as if he had the ball on a string, as if he was one of those basketball players in the video game he liked to play where the ball would catch fire after the player had hit three consecutive shots. Without even looking up, Hans gently guided the cue ball across the narrow bottom-half of the table, and—so as not to scratch—put back-spin on the cue ball so that when it hit the six-ball of solids, the cue ball rolled back to the top-half of the table while the six-ball rolled into the bottom right-corner pocket like a groundhog going back into its hole for the winter. “I gotta believe that that shot was a fluke,” said his uncle, grimacing, and scratching the left side of his head. “Where’d you lehn how to put english on the ball like that?”

         Hans’s light-blue eyes lit up with gleeful glow as if he’d just hit the slot-machine jackpot. In his mind he imagined himself fist-pumping just like his favorite basketball players on television would do when they’d hit a game-winning shot. “He is on fire!”, he could hear the announcer in his head saying. “Hans the hero, from way down-town!” He imagined the ovation of the imaginary crowd that was watching him play, standing and cheering for their hometown hero who’d just hit the greatest shot of his career. He imagined Uncle Rick fading away, sulking back into the locker room like Wilt Chamberlain after the Pennsylvanian Goliath had been bested by Bill Russell yet again. He imagined himself as a star basketball player, a great painter, an interstellar Magellan-like galactic explorer—he imagined himself as anything other than who he was, living anywhere else other than where he presently was. He imagined a different life for himself than the one he had now, and he loved what it looked like. “Stop imagining,” he could hear his conscience telling himself. “Imagining is not good. Imagining only ever leads to bad things…imagining is dangerous. Better not to imagine. Better to set your mind on something real in the here-and-now.”

         Listening to boring, cautious voice in his head rather than to the imaginary video-game announcer in his head, and hearing the repulsive roar of his uncle’s horrible throat-clearing cough instead of the raucous roar of the imaginary crowd, Hans quickly refocused on his goal and eyed the eight-ball with the steely-eyed determination of an old Western marshal facing down the corrupt town sheriff in a high-noon showdown. With the cue ball positioned squarely in the center of the top-half of the table—the side of the table from where Hans had taken the break shot—Hans placed his left hand in front of the cue ball, forming a right-angled bridge with his thumb and index finger, and lowered his cue stick into the bridge of his fingers.

         “Hold on a minute, boy,” said his uncle, clearing his scraggy throat more agitatedly than usual. “I gotta go to the bathroom. Don’t go anywheh. I’ll be right back.”

         His uncle left his cue stick on the wall rack, meandered toward the bathroom, shut the door, and cleared his throat in such a loud, distressing matter that Hans thought it was a death-rattle; subconsciously, he hoped it was a death-rattle, but he never dared to think those thoughts consciously—those were bad thoughts, Hans would tell himself, and bad thoughts only lead to worse thoughts…bad thoughts won’t help you, he would tell himself. They can’t do anything for you. All they can do is make you mad and sad. Best to keep you mind on other things. Like your schoolwork. And sports. And drawing.

         While he was waiting, Hans looked at the pictures which were tacked onto the bulletin board: they were all drawings of his that he had made over the years at school, and he had bought a bulletin board so that he could hang them up and display them to his uncle—and to himself—as evidence of his artistic gifts. There was a color sketch of a tiger lying in a jungle; a sketch of an astronaut landing on an exotic planet; sketches of his favorite basketball players—Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Reggie Lewis—and Hans’s favorite, a watercolor painting of a painter with a handlebar mustache wearing a beret, standing in front of his easel with his palette in his left hand and his paintbrush in his right hand, just about ready to apply his paint to the canvas. One day, thought Hans, perhaps he would be able to frame that painting; for now, it hung on the bulletin board with all the others, held in place by four red thumbtacks.

         The bathroom door opened, and Hans’s uncle stepped out and strolled back to the pool table like a casino gambler with a losing hand returning to his interrupted game at the blackjack table. “Alright, boy,” said his uncle, reclaiming his cue stick from the rack like a drinker picking up a bottle of beer from the bar counter. “It’s yuh shot. Call yuh pocket.”

         Hans pointed with his pool cue to the bottom corner-right pocket.

         “Very good. Go ahead now.”

         Hans put his left hand back on the table in front of the cue ball, and lowered his cue stick once again into the gap between his left index finger and thumb. He squinted his eyes, eyeing his target like a sniper lining up a long-distance shot.

         “Hold on theh a minute, boy,” said his uncle, chalking his cue with the cherry-sized red chalk and sprinkling flurries of red dust across the red felt playing surface like falling sparks of scattering fireworks. “You can’t do that.”

         “Do what?” asked Hans, his eyes still locked on the cue ball, his two hands still holding the cue stick in a horizontal striking position.

         “You can’t move the cue ball like that, boy.”

         “Huh?” Hans picked his cue stick up off the table, now holding it in a vertical at-ease position, and glanced warily at his uncle.

         “You moved the cue ball, boy. Befow I left to go to the bathroom, it was hee’uh,” said his uncle, pointing to a spot three inches to the left of where the cue ball currently was. “And now it’s hee’uh,” he said, pointing to where the ball currently was.

         “What? I didn’t touch it!” Hans objected. “I just stood here the whole time! I didn’t even move!”

         “That ain’t good, boy, what you did,” said his uncle, as if he hadn’t heard a syllable of his nephew’s protests. “That’s a real bad thing, boy, what you did…very slippery. A real gahbage move. That’s cheating, boy. What you did’s called cheatin’…one a’ the oldest tricks in the book.”

         Hans’s mouth was wide open in silent dissent, but he couldn’t—he dared not—utter one more word.

         “And even wehse,” continued to his uncle, shaking his head, a severe frown forming across his crinkly face, “to do that to yuh uncle, yuh good Uncle Rick…that’s a real bad thing, boy, cheatin’ like that ‘gainst yuh own family.”

         Hans’s eyes were frozen in icy outrage. He wanted to say it wasn’t true, but he knew he couldn’t risk offending his uncle; the “bad things,” Hans would tell himself, happen when you make Uncle Rick mad. And one of the things that made Uncle Rick mad was trying to contradict him. Because when you tried to contradict Uncle Rick, it looked like you were trying to outsmart him, trying to say that he’s not as good as he thinks he is, trying to imply that maybe he doesn’t know everything, trying to imply that maybe he’s not always right—but in Uncle Rick’s household, Uncle Rick was always right, and you had better not try to show him otherwise. Because ‘the “bad things” had happened to you,’ Hans said to himself, ‘when you did try to show him otherwise. And you don’t want the “bad things” to happen again, Hans, do you? Because there’s nothing worse than the bad things. Best to keep your head down, keep quiet, and say “yes, Uncle Rick,” no matter what he says.’ He knew he just needed to say ‘yes, Uncle Rick,’ and the momentary annoyances would soon be over—but if he didn’t say ‘yes, Uncle Rick,’ the momentary annoyances would turn into the “bad things,” which hurt much more and lasted much longer. Saying “yes, Uncle Rick, anything you say,” was the only survival tactic Hans knew, and he practiced it with the unswerving constancy of a boy scout bugler blowing his bugle at every lights out.

         “Well, boy, this cheatin’ thing you tried to pull on me is a very, very, very bad thing…maybe the wehst thing you’ve evuh tried to pull on me, boy. And you gotta be punished for that…punished real good, boy, real damn good…but I’ll tell you what. Because yow’uh family, I’ll let you off the hook. I’m a nice guy, ain’t I, boy?” He flashed Hans a smile, revealing a mouthful of stained, misshapen, yellowed teeth. “Ain’t yow’uh Uncle Rick a nice guy?”

         Hans sheepishly nodded his head in silent assent.

         “So hee’uhs what I’ll do for you, boy. Hee’uhs what: because I’m a nice guy, and ‘cause wee’uh family, I’ll let you get away with this god-awful cheatin’ business just this one time, just this once. All you gotta do is sign this hee’uh ovuh to me.”

         Uncle Rick reached into his left pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers and showed Hans its contents.

         “Now,” said his Uncle Rick, taking out a pen from his other pocket, “even though you think yow’e so smaht, you probably can’t understand this. This hee’uhs one of those legal documents. It says that when yow’e grandpa died last month, he left you twenty-six thousand dollahs. Now, boy, just sign hee’uh…” His Uncle Rick handed him the pen and pointed to a blank line at the bottom of the page. “All you gotta do is sign hee’uh, which means yow’uh givin’ that twenty-six thousand ovuh to me, and I’ll let this whole thing slide…sounds good? I’ll forget about this whole real bad cheatin’ stunt you tried to pull on me. Alright?”

         Hans nodded again in meek, mute assent. He grasped the pen with his right hand, signed his signature on the line, and handed the pen back to his uncle.

         “Very good, boy, very good. You play a nice game, you really do. You just gotta lay off the cheating, and you’ll be alright. Okay?”

         Hans nodded again.

         “Alright, then. That’s enough playin’ fuh one day. Now go do yuh homewehk. Suppuh’ll be ready in an ouw’uh.”




© The Acentos Review 2017