Howson was a real Annie Oakley on the tables. She made the game look easy. You might think I’m full of it, but I saw her first big showdown; the one that put her on the map.
I was tending bar at Jillian’s Speak Easy, that hideaway pool hall over on Elm Street, the night Howson and Winter went toe-to-toe for the APA League Citation Title. I’m lucky to have seen it at all; I was supposed to have the night off. To my good fortune, Pam had asked me to cover her shift. She said she had come down with the flu, but her situation probably had more to do with whatever grunge musician she was hanging out with rather than any actual illness.
Nonetheless, I accepted the offer because Wednesdays were league night, and that meant the joint would be wall-to-wall with the usual freaks, geeks, and hustlers. Why wouldn’t I want to show up? Most of those players tipped well, and the stories they told were an oasis for an undercover author. Still, after having heard their tallest tales about league legends, I never would’ve expected to see a carefree maverick like Howson materialize.
I had just pulled a rack of clean highball and pint glasses from the dishwasher, when through the billows of steam, I saw her emerge from the crowd and step up to the bar. Apparently, she had been in the hall all evening, picking apart her competition, but I had been so busy slinging drinks that I failed to notice her or her winning streak – that is, until she ordered a martini, shaken with two olives, as if she was Double O Seven or something. While I folded gin, ice, and vermouth together inside the silver shaker, Howson leaned over the counter, dropped a crisp C-note from her recent winnings into my tip jar, and asked if I knew where the holes were in Winter’s game.
Keep in mind, this all happened before she had become the APA circuit household name that she is today. I’m talking about 5th edition citation rules here, not this latest nerfed update. Fifth edition was not for the faint of heart; it was American football without the face masks – real smash mouth, all-star stuff. Hell, in those days we had no way to cite these Tik-Toks and memes; we had no DOI’s. Folks did what they could with what they had. I digress; let’s get back to the scene.
I retrieved the fresh-pressed hundred from the tip jar and slid the bill, instead of a cocktail napkin, beneath the base of her chilled glassware. Howson’s cinnamon eyes shimmered like smoky quartz as she studied my movements. Brushing a stray, psychedelic blue strand of hair behind her right ear, she watched the concoction tumble from the frost covered lip between the shaker and strainer, over a pair of toothpick-skewered green olives, and into her clear glass.
“This one’s on the house,” I told her, “but I wouldn’t mind seeing that smug, underhanded bastard wind up on the wrong end of a break-and-run. I’m sure most everyone in here would agree. If you must leave him a shot, make sure you stick the cue ball to the wall. He misses three out of five citations when he’s pinned against the rail.”
She raised the martini to her lips and took a sip. Before returning the stemmed glass to the black marble countertop, Howson pushed the watermarked bill back across the bar. “You earned that. This martini has been perfect – present perfect. Besides, I was already keyed into Winter’s shortcomings. He’s an easy read.” With a knowing smile, Howson rose from the bar stool and ambled through the shark infested waters that led to her table.
About twenty minutes later, I noticed that a crowd had begun to gather around the back two tables. On my way to investigate what had drawn everyone away from the bar, I stopped to feed the jukebox a dollar. The hungry machine slurped in the dollar like a kid eating spaghetti and thanked me by playing “I’m Housin’” from the Rage Against the Machine album, Renegades. Zack De La Rocha had just begun cooling on the scene like a horse in a stable as I nudged my way through the zoot-suited onlookers. I was four, maybe five feet from Winter when he had the last few gears of his clock cleaned.
“Punctuation outside the quotation mark. Corner pocket,” Howson called after eyeing the remaining essay components that lay scattered about the red felt-covered table. She placed her left hand on the oak rail, bent her knees, leaned in, and lined up her shot. The 19 oz pearl-inlaid walnut cue slid back and forth between her index finger and thumb. “I’m going to have to use a little English on this one,” she joked before plunging the blue chalk dusted tip into the cue ball.
Winter impaled the lime sitting atop his tonic remains and grunted, “Lucky shot.”
“You know there ain’t nothing but skill in my game. Give up now, and I’ll go easy on you.”
“I don’t think so. You used too much backspin. There’s no way you’ll get around that fused sentence.”
“I’m about to split it up like Hydrogen.” She paused her dig at Winters and settled into her shot. Howson’s tanned leather cue tip kissed the upper right quadrant of the cue ball, releasing a tink loud enough to be heard over the music. The white sphere twisted like a pinwheel in a rainstorm, bounced off three rails, and knocked the previously obstructed comma splice into the side pocket closest to her. “As Zack will tell us,” she began before synchronizing her voice to the song lyrics that ebbed from the jukebox speakers, “you’d better relate to the matter as I drop the bomb. ‘Cause I’m Howson! Because I’m Howson!” The cue ball came to rest a few inches from the last component, leaving a simple, head-on shot for her final play. “Now, are you going to make me take this last shot, or are you ready to submit?”
Winter didn’t answer. In fact, he didn’t even watch as Howson sank the running head format error. Instead, he just took apart his cue, put the pieces into a purple velvet lined case, wrapped himself in his black duster jacket, walked outside, and dissolved into the night.