Fiction: The Hustler

July 20, 2018 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

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John A McCaffrey




It was The Hustler by Walter Tevis and Lena bought it for me in a used bookstore in Vancouver. The small cargo ship we worked was docked for a few weeks, and Lena and I spent a good deal of the time walking the city and exploring its bookstores and bars. Perhaps the order should have been reversed, because our usual pattern was to find a dive, throw back a few beers, a shot or two, and then, with buzz on, hunt down new reading material.


Lena, cliché be damned, took my breath away the first time I met her. I was attracted to her looks (if you put spiky blond hair on Audrey Hepburn, and dress her like the denizen of a skate park, you have Lena), and also her kinetic energy. But it was her love of reading that did me in. I was an easy mark. Tall, spindly and awkward throughout high school, the only confidence I had came through books, making connections with authors, finding in their words, their stories, all that I was not getting in the outside world.


I must admit, it was not an accident that Lena and I found ourselves working together. Truth be told, she was employed first, and I signed on just to meet her. Before you judge this action as good or bad, please give me time to tell you why. Actually, let me tell you about Joe.


I met Joe at a yoga retreat in British Columbia, on a farm which looked down on a lovely body of water with the memorable name of Loon Lake. It was a pristine spot, and the farm had been converted into a spa with a row of bungalows in a former cow pasture. I wasn’t much into yoga, but a woman I was interested in was teaching and I scraped together enough to pay the fee. Unfortunately, the weekend was a disappointment. The woman, who I thought was also interested in me, wasn’t, and the food, vegetarian and raw, left me ravenous.


Meeting Joe, however, made up for things. I really enjoyed being around him, and not just because he was tall and thin like me, and maybe even more awkward, but because he was genuine and soft-spoken and unlike most at the retreat, did not speak in automatic beatitudes about yoga and meditation and finding balance in life through the breath. Not that he was against it: he shared with me that yoga and meditating and finding balance in life though the breath was helping him heal from his divorce. But the difference was it sounded unrehearsed when he said it, practical and not preachy, humble without hubris. He was just a kind soul, and on the second night we were there he told me about his marriage and its breakup. I even remember how he started: “Lena,” he said, “was everything to me.”


It’s hard for me to tell you about Joe and Lena as an impartial observer. My own feelings for Lena are too great to not have it influence my perspective. I will do my best to keep myself out of it, but if I do edge into the equation, I hope you will forgive me. Anyway, here’s what Joe shared. He and Lena were high school sweethearts. They even lived close to each other, and their parents were friends. They always got along well, and he considered her family even before they married. The first crisis they encountered as a couple was in college – they enrolled in the same school, a small, arts-oriented university, and they both lived at home, commuting by car together to class. If it sounds too staid and mature for young people to act, even a couple in love, and you think that was the problem, that either Joe or Lena wanted to sow some proverbial “wild oats” apart, you’re wrong. Joe said the issue was education, what they were studying. Lena, he said, had gotten smitten with literature, engrossed in studying the classics. He thought this great, but she worried that her growing interest would put a divide between them. He told me she was always honest, brutally so, and she said right out that he never would have the same passion as she did for books, and thus might not be suited for her.


It was a devastating comment to Joe. He could not fathom losing Lena, and threw himself into all things literary – even changing his major. Lena seemed happy after that. At least she never questioned again if they were right for each other, went along with a marriage right after college. To Joe, things between them were great the first few years until, one day, she told him they were done.  It was fast and without emotion, Joe said, almost clinical. She said she no longer wanted to be married; that it had nothing to do with not loving him, or that he was bad to her or even that she was unhappy. She just knew it was time to move on, and she did.


When Joe was finished, I asked him why he thought Lena left him so suddenly. He answered with something that kept me up the rest of that night, something that led me to seek her out and get a job on the boat. You might call this a betrayal of Joe, or a deception put upon Lena, as I never told her I met her ex-husband. And while I can’t stop you from thinking so, perhaps the fact that Lena hurt me to the core will assuage any contempt you have for me. But what Joe told me that night was the most romantic thing I had ever heard. And I just had to meet Lena, had to see for myself what I felt I was missing.


I was alone in my berth, reading The Hustler, when Lena came to get me. We had one night left before leaving dock, and she had an idea to find a pool hall in town, a seedy one, and see if we could get into a game and “pull a con.” The fact that neither of us played pool well didn’t matter: she felt if we used our wits, set someone up for what they thought was an easy score, we could make a score. I still didn’t know how we could pull something like that off without real skill, but I was not in the business of debating anything with Lena. If anything, her enthusiasm became mine, and once we found a suitable pool hall we had hashed out a plan. Basically, she and I would play a game of eight ball, easy pool, and during the game we would get into a fight. She would call me names, belittle me until I returned fire, verbally, getting in her face, I think we decided, until other men came to break things up – to naturally defend her. Then I was to set up the score, challenge the gallant guy to a game – the winner taking Lena home. She would then get even more upset – decry my boorishness, my arrogance, my callous disregard for our love. But if that was how I wanted it, then she would abide. We decided that at this point, Lena would turn on the charm to the guy, make him know that she was rooting for him to win, to actually take her home. And then once the game started, no matter the guy’s skill, I would lose. Lena would then start crying, sobbing, saying how sorry she was to the guy, that she can’t go through with it. Despite me being such a horrible boyfriend, she can’t just start up with someone new. And with that we would leave, arm in arm, two seemingly broken, screwed-up, made-for- each-other people. And that was the hustle: we got someone to play me for something he never was going to win. Just like the book, we decided. The mark always thinks they are going to get what they want, more than what they want, and they never, ever, will get it. Lena thought the plan was brilliant, and I liked it too. It felt for some reason literary, and it was not about money, but emotion, psychology, wits. To me, we were writing a story. Except it never happened. To start, barely a soul was in the hall when we got there, and as we played, and fought, no one came over, until finally, a short, pudgy fellow who was sweeping around the tables, politely asked us to leave after our game was over. It was all very deflating, but once outside, Lena and I began to laugh, at ourselves, mostly, for being so dramatic, for putting so much effort into a plan, for thinking that others really cared. Lena said we “hustled ourselves,” and she was quite pleased with the idea. Anyway, we made it back to the boat and to my berth and made love.


What Joe told me that night by the fire, about Lena’s leaving, the motivation, he had decided, was her way of ensuring a lasting love between them. He said that not long before she left, one night, she had climbed on top of him in bed, let him enter her, and then, in a whisper, asked him to be still, to be quiet, and to just look at her. He said she made it a game: the first one to move loses. He told me, without shyness, that it was the hardest thing he ever did in his life: to remain frozen, with the love of his life connected to him, physically, emotionally, spiritually. He wanted to take her, spill everything inside her, his whole being, but he willed himself not to move and just look at her. Then, when he thought he couldn’t take anymore, a tear fell onto his check.  He said it was cool but stung his skin. He waited for another, as Lena’s eyes were moist, but no more came, and then, with burst, she was moving, gyrating, until they both climaxed. She left him two days later.


I’d like to think Lena left me for the same reason she left Joe, or what he thinks is the reason, what Somerset Maugham, one of Lena’s favorite authors, wrote once: “The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned.” Maybe once she felt the epitome of love, the apex of connection with Joe, manifested in that tear, she knew she had to leave, that to stay a moment longer would wilt that love, cheapen it, the lesser love of the future wiping out the memory of the greatest love of the past. All I can say is that the love we made after our failure at the pool hall was deep and complex and after I melted into sleep, with Lena in my arms, happier than I ever felt possible. Then she left, the very next morning, leaving me, the boat, her job, in one swift move.


I had an idea to chase her, but in the end I retreated back to my berth, and then went to work doing what I needed to do to keep my salary. We left dock and went north, into icy waters. It was slow going, but it suited me. What I liked most was at night, in my berth, reading, listening to the ice being broken by the boat as it moved, and every now and then, when the ship stopped, or settled, and everything came to a halt, a blessed silence, sweet and stinging, like a tear on my cheek, reminding me of Lena, of the gift she gave me of a lasting love. Or is that just me hustling myself? I’ll let you decide.






John A McCaffrey

John A McCaffrey attended Villanova University and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. He is the author of the novel The Book of Ash (October 2013) and the collection of short stories, Two Syllable Men (April 2016). Nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize, he teaches creative writing in New York City.

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