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A Game Of Eightball by Mark Tulin

It was 7 p.m. I was tired and sweaty from a long workday and wanted to go home. But instead, I waited in an uncomfortable hospital lounge for my wife to finish a therapy session.

An elderly man shot pool by himself. He was probably in his early 70s; he had a warm and kindly face, with closely cropped gray hair. He kept whistling a familiar song. It was a Christian tune I heard at church a thousand times but never remembered the name.

He saw me watching him and motioned me to join.

“My name is Stanley,” he said and shook my hand. I didn’t want to give him my name because I didn’t trust this place, especially the staff.

“You want to play pool?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, needing something better to do than watching reruns of old TV shows. So, I grabbed a pool cue and rubbed the end with chalk. The feel of the pool cue felt pleasing and light.

“Eightball?” I asked. It was the only game I remembered how to play.

“Yessir,” he said with a giant smile.

Eightball was simple. Not much thinking. You had to pocket all seven billiard balls and get the eightball in before the other player. It was easy—the opposite of how my life was going.

I tried to concentrate on the game, but negative thoughts kept popping up. No matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough. I could have been the best husband, but my wife would still be a patient in the locked unit of a psychiatric hospital. So I didn’t share my frustration with anyone—not even my parents, for fear they’d criticize me.

“Hello, Sarah,” said Stanley to a nurse.

“I hope you get some sleep tonight, Stanley,” she replied with a smile.

He kept whistling that familiar song. It was a happy tune and inspiring.

“I’ll rack up, and you break,” he said.

I hoped he would be mediocre so the game could be competitive. I hated to lose at anything. My hands trembled as I broke the pile and inadvertently set up Stanley for some easy shots.

“You have a family member here?” he asked.

“Yes, my wife is with a therapist right now.”

“Sometimes they invite the spouses into the sessions to let them know what’s happening. Dr. Jean is my wife’s therapist—she’s wonderful.”

“That’s good,” I said. I didn't tell Stanley that the therapist thought it best that I didn’t come into family therapy anymore. She thought I was upsetting my wife. “An impediment to her well-being,” she called it.

The old man took his time analyzing the table, then racked up three balls in a row. The last one bounced off the cushion and barely rolled into the side pocket.

As we shot pool, I could hear a woman groaning in pain in one of the patient rooms. It was difficult for her to breathe—like something unbearable pierced her insides with each breath.

“I wonder what’s going on with her?” I asked Stanley. “She must be in terrible shape, huh?”

“She is,” he said while nonchalantly placing the six-ball in the side pocket.

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. That’s my wife.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean—”

“No problem,” he said. “My wife’s been here off and on for three years now and a few other places.”

“Three years? My wife’s been here for four months, and it feels like an eternity.”

My three striped balls were scattered in different directions. Stanley's two solid ones were lined up against each other near the right corner, with the eightball in my way.

“Patients get worse before they get better,” he said. “It takes time to heal psychological wounds. It’s not like medical problems where you take medicine or get operated on, and it goes away.”

Stanley sized up his next shot and banked it off the left cushion.

He began to whistle that tune again. The song temporarily distracted me from his wife’s painful groaning.

“Doctors try,” he said, “but the human mind is too complex to understand. So, we must be patient and hope things will work out.”

Stanley seemed in tune with his maker, who seemed to give him valuable information I was incapable of receiving.

“My wife tried to kill herself,” I confessed, shocked that I shared this personal information with a stranger. “She bought a handgun and left a note on the coffee table. I read it before she pulled the trigger.”

“You’re a fortunate man,” he said, “must have the Good Lord on your side.”

“She was taken to the psych emergency room and transported to a locked unit. Then, after a few months of not getting better, the doctor started using electro-shock on her—whatever that is.”

“Know that procedure very well. The doctor hooks electrodes to the skull to stimulate a convulsion. It’s supposed to make the patient forget the past and wipe away painful memories.”

“Does it help?” I asked.

“I don’t know about other people, but it helped my wife for a year—then she got depressed again.”

“You must be frustrated.”

“Not at all. I’m grateful.”

“Grateful?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said passionately. “I’m grateful for places like this because my wife wouldn’t be alive today without them.”

I’m not religious, but I admired the old man’s steadfast faith. The more hardships he went through—the stronger his belief.

I drank water from a plastic cup and chalked my pool cue again. Stanley's wife’s groaning grew louder and more disturbing. But Stanley was unperturbed.

“I trust the people in here,” he said. “They wouldn't let my wife suffer.”

“But why does she keep crying?” I asked.

“The therapist said it was psychological. There’s really no pain—it’s all in her head.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Stanley put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re a smart young man, and I know that you want to do anything possible to help your wife. Let the doctor figure this out. Your job is to keep the faith.”

“Excuse me, nurse?” I said to a passing RN. “My wife’s been in therapy for more than an hour?”

The nurse smiled. “Sometimes therapy runs over. It all depends on what’s going on in the room.”

“Can’t you find out for me when she’ll be finished?”

“Sorry, I can’t disturb the therapist while in session. So you’ll just have to wait.”

I had an urge to break my cue over the pool table, but I held it together.

“How do you not get angry?” I asked Stanley.

“It’s not about what we want," he said. “It’s what our wives need. And right now, it’s giving them one hundred percent of ourselves—love, compassion, and patience. We must stay strong for them because they’re weak and fragile. If we lose hope, they will too.”

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough,” I said while making a chip shot into the left pocket.

“I could feel your frustration,” Stanley said. “But I know your love for your wife is stronger than the anger and confusion combined.”

We played pool without speaking for the next few minutes. Stanley continued to whistle the song as he was summoned by a nurse.

“What did you say your name was?” he asked.

“Martin,” I said.

Stanley said he was going into a therapy session with his wife and wished me good luck.

Just as Stanley left, my wife appeared from the double doors. She was wearing her hospital gown but had the biggest smile.

“You look amazing,” I said. “Did your doctor say you’re going home soon?’

“No,” she said, still glowing from ear to ear.

“Then why are you so happy?”

“I’ve decided to divorce you, Martin.”

And before I could say a word, she retreated through the double doors, taking with her the last bit of hope I had to salvage our marriage.

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1 Comment

Jan 30, 2023

I like this short story. An interesting snap shot of life, well written and moves along quickly

congrats Mark

Royden V Chan

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