After taking a deep, controlled draw of his Italian cigar, he pointed it at me to indicate it was my turn to shoot. The game's tempo had flatlined as we played hide and seek with only the cue and eight-ball remaining on the table. Our pockets were on opposite sides, causing a stalemate in which neither of us was willing to give up a good position and risk losing the five dollars.
Five dollars feels like ten when you win it in pool, twenty when you can barely make rent. There's a sweet satisfaction in hearing silence wash over a demeaning opponent when they realize there's a chance you might sink it and prove them wrong. I nodded to him awkwardly as I ground the chalk against the cue tip and analyzed the now destitute, green-felt landscape. A respectful silence washed over the small basement crowd as they, too, saw the imaginary lines and angles I was calculating in my head. With a deep inhale through my nose, holding my breath as I lined up, and a slow, calm exhale. Gliding the stick smoothly through my fingers and just kissing the ball's hip.
The eight ball rolled just far enough near my pocket where he couldn't nudge it out. The crowd cheered, and after another draw of his cigar and a wry smile, I shook Martino's worn, sandpapery hand.
"Want to play again?" He asked quietly and feigned politeness in front of the crowd.
"I've taken all your money; what else do you have to bet?"
Martino looked around the basement, which was filthy aside from the neatly maintained pool table that occupied half the room. Above us was the bodega Martino owned; a small, homely place always smelling of fine Italian meats. In contrast, the pool room had the aroma of earthy tobacco smoke, which seemed to live in the walls long after the last butt was extinguished. An old FM radio was playing opera and sat atop a cube-shaped television on the other side of the room. S.S.C. Napoli was attracting the crowd's attention away from Martino and me as one of the players scored a goal. Martino's wrinkly gray eyes squinted and settled on something in the corner.
"How about Nero?" He pointed the red embers of his cigar towards a tiny black kitten that cautiously watched us behind a weathered cardboard box. The kitten could have fit in the palm of my hand. Sipping my beer, I stared into his reflective green eyes. I rationalized the prospect of raising the animal in my closet-sized, Potteresque apartment.
"I don't know…." I started with an excuse but Martino interrupted to explain himself.
"Listen, there's a reason you're playing pool with a bunch of old men on a Saturday night. Do you have no friends of your own?" This was how he got back at me for consistently beating him these past two months. Sometimes we'd play ten games, and I'd feel better about making rent when I walked out.
"Bars are expensive, friends even more so. I like being alone." This was a lie. I had recently moved to the city, hoping it would inspire my writing, but I hadn't written a word. It was a far cry from my slow monotonous life back in Iowa, which I was desperate to escape. I didn't tell my mom when I left; she wouldn't understand, never did, and therefore I had no lifeline if I couldn't find a job. I unsuccessfully begged restaurant owners to let me bus tables until I stumbled into Martino's. He agreed to let me sleep in the storage closet and offered fair pay if I worked twelve-hour shifts and was paid off the books. I had no other choice but to agree. After two months, I saved up enough to rent a place down the street from Martino's restaurant and above the bodega.
What I was not prepared for, however, is how lonely one can feel in a city with eight million people. I was terrible at small talk, big talk, and the unspoken expectations that were what truly gave friendships longevity. I forgot birthdays, texts back, names, numbers, and God; it seemed like everything at this point slipped my mind as soon as I cracked a new book. Writing was my passion, not people, and one became a good writer by reading as much as possible– or so my father said.
"The cat will be good for you. Nero is quiet and doesn't cost much to feed. The perfect friend for a struggling writer."
I looked back at the kitten, now gnawing on the flaps of the open box. It had a silky black coat that reflected the glow of the overhead fluorescent light. Nero I thought. The emperor who watched Rome burn. The kitten looked up at me as if he'd heard me say the thought aloud. His eyes were large and innocent; a terribly cute cat. He wrinkled his nose, flared his whiskers, and pounced out of the box, landing silently on the cold cement floor. His little paws patted the ground as he approached my leg and began brushing against it. I took it as a compliment and possibly a cry for help; wishing to be taken away from the dumpster of a basement.
"See? He likes you." Martino's gravely voice disturbed the pure moment between Nero and me. "I don't let him out of the basement because he's bad luck. I only let him out while we play pool, so he rubs off on the people I play against."
I picked up Nero by the belly and raised him so our faces meet. He seemed to like it and didn't resist me.
"No, he's not bad luck," I spoke softly as if consoling an insulted child. I examined the cat, turning it side to side. His fur felt like feathers in my palms. I wasn't sure what I was trying to find so I set him back down gently on the ground and he skipped back to his box. I wanted to humiliate Martino some more. "I'll prove it. If I beat you again after touching him, you let him upstairs and take better care of him. If I lose, then I'll take him off your hands."
"Deal." Martino's yellowing teeth peered through his crooked smile. His immediate response suggested he knew something I didn't, which worried me. I started to confidently rack the balls while Martino shouted something in Italian to the other men, lit another cigar, and chalked his stick, all without his crooked smile leaving his lips. The men hastily got up from their seats in front of the soccer game so they could watch us play.
It was two in the morning when we got back to my apartment. Nero had fallen asleep in my arms as I carried him over my shoulder. I had one hand on his back and the other on the grocery bag full of cat food I'd bought as I left the bodega. All the money I'd won off Martino earlier in the night now sat in his register.
He'd sunk every shot, missing only once, and the chance I got ended with a ricochet against the eight ball and pocketing early. This never happened to me in the early stages of the game. Only three of Martino's balls were off the table at the time, the crowd roared with laughter, and Martino handed me Nero, as my mouth hung open from shock. With his disgusting tobacco breath, Martino leaned in and whispered to me, "Now, it is you who is cursed with bad luck."
My stomach full of beer, I laid Nero next to me in bed, closed my eyes, and drifted off into a restless sleep. I had strange dreams that the kitten I had owned for a single night was talking to me.
I woke suddenly to the sound of a pot slamming against the tile floor in the kitchen. Nero was gone, and I jumped out of bed to see who had made the noise. Cautiously tip-toeing into the kitchen, I peered around the corner and found Nero climbing the overhead shelves.
"Good morning, buddy," I said, calming myself as my heart rate dropped. The cat ignored me and continued to play with the other pot, which was still on the shelf and not on the floor. I lifted him from the shelf, going limp in my hand until he was almost on the ground again. I wondered how such a small cat could have leaped high enough to reach the shelf and move a pot of such size. I must have left it on the edge by accident.
Beside the pot was some mail that had also found the floor due to Nero's gymnastics. Con-ed, a bank statement, and a letter addressed to me with my old residency on the return address. My younger brother was the only other person who knew where I was, so I decided to open it. It said the following:
Please come home. Mom is sorry for what she said and blames herself for everything that happened. She's not doing well and Dad still hasn't sent money. I can't take care of her by myself anymore. Love you.
I sat, forced to the ground by the weight on my shoulders. Nero skipped over and laid his back against my leg, trying to comfort me. It had been two months since I had run away from home. I hoped to start making more by finding a real job with better pay, but Martino saw that I worked just about every waking hour. He often asked me to stay late, threatening to fire me, which didn't leave much time for job hunting. Figures, just as soon as I get my feet under me with my own place I get called back with nothing to show. I couldn't write back just yet. I dreamed of being a writer, and she hated me for it. I placed the letter in a side drawer and began preparing for work.
I was consumed with thoughts about my future. If I went home now, all of my dreams and aspirations I'd tried to bring to fruition by coming to the city would be gone. There would never be a better time to sever the ties with my family and pursue my own life. My father was a writer and could have been a successful one. Before he left, my memories of him were fond; he read to me every night, showed me how to create a story, and constantly reminded me I had the gift. When I needed comforting, I turned to him, not mom. I blamed her for making him leave because I'd begun to experience her extreme contempt for dreams he must have endured for years. You have no talent. You're just like your father. Those words were kneaded into the soft, mushy part of my brain by now. Knowing your family disdained every letter you scratched on the page was suffocating. That's why he left, so I did too.
Washing dishes proved too complex while reflecting on my past, which required my full attention. I wasn't careful in the kitchen and dropped a few plates as my brain was elsewhere. After cleaning up the porcelain shards, I mopped the floors but forgot to put out the yellow folding sign indicating they were still slick. Martino slipped upon taking one step into the kitchen, cursed me out, and sent me home for the day. What was wrong with me?
When I got home, I went to bed but saw Nero had torn up my only pillow. Too tired to scold him, I laid my head down on the bare unwashed mattress and dreamt my father came to visit me.
It was two in the morning when I woke up. It was quiet outside, but one could still hear the hustle of the city. I made a cup of coffee, lit a candle at my desk, and planted myself to write. I started a story about a boxer who learns he will never fight again. The more I wrote, I realized how similar it was to a movie I saw and lost interest. I looked around to play with Nero, but he was asleep on the bed, so I began flipping through the mail I'd brought in to get away from my thoughts. The second piece of paper was a warning notice from my landlord that rent would double next month. My heart sank into my stomach, and my eyes went wide.
I started to cry in an ugly and humbling manner. Paying double the rent, with Martino's increasingly demanding hours, was next to impossible without finding a higher-paying job. My only option was to beg Martino to move back into the restaurant. Skipping breakfast before work, I decided to pick at scraps on the dirty plates to start saving as much as possible. It seemed like a good idea to ask Martino after work to remind him how hard of a worker I was after yesterday's events.
The main fault in my plan became evident when I felt sluggish and anxious thirty minutes into my shift. My body wasn't cooperating with my brain. This was likely the compounding effect of skipping dinner the night before and breakfast this morning. I didn't even notice the first plate I broke due to feeling so lightheaded. Martino heard the crash, walked in, and began berating me just as the day before.
"Are you on drugs!?" I jumped at the volume of the insult.
"How many plates have you broken now?" I couldn't answer. He might have been speaking Italian. "One more plate! Just one more, and you're gone! You hear me? Gone!" He slammed his fist on the metal counter causing the other plates to rattle and stared at me unflinching with his gray, lifeless eyes. Turning to leave, he whipped the swinging door after him. The previous chatter in the kitchen was silent. I felt hopeless.
I dropped a few more plates, but luckily Martino wasn't nearby, and I quickly cleaned them up. Eating throughout the day off the dishes I'd clean, the lightheadedness faded. After closing, Martino was in his office counting the balance sheet when I walked in.
"What do you want?" He asked, not looking up and still annoyed at the sight of me.
"I need to ask you a favor."
"What is it?" He punched the buttons of the calculator, still not looking up.
"I need to move into the back room again. I can't afford the rent at my place anymore."
This caught his attention.
"Not with that cat living with you."
"What?" Expecting a hard no or a demand for lower pay, this caught me completely off guard. "Why does it matter if he stays with me?"
"That cat is bad luck, so now you are bad luck. Think about it. Why do you drop so many plates? Why did you cause me to slip yesterday? The cat which once cursed me has cursed you now."
"You don't see it? Have things been easy for you since Nero came into your life? Do you not see everything is because of him? Think back to the game we played. Remember you touched him before you lost on your first shot? What else has that cat ruined for you like he did for me?" The intensity with which he spoke scared me. Things had worsened for me since I'd gotten Nero, but none of it could be his fault.
"You're insane. I'll work for even less pay and keep the same hours."
"No." His attention returned to the balance sheet.
"No pay and same hours." I was getting desperate.
"With that cat, you are better off dead than working here. You will only cost me money. You're fired. Get out of my restaurant."
Feeling defeated on my walk home, I didn't even notice the fire engines and police cars racing past me toward my apartment. I shuffled my legs, each step feeling as if there was an extra ten pounds on my feet. I can't go home. I want to be a writer. My shoulders were heavy, my feet felt like I was walking in knee-high water, and I was ready to collapse. But mom needs me.. I reached the cross-section where I could see my apartment.
The scene was pure chaos; my apartment window was an incinerator, violently spitting embers in all directions as the firemen began to detangle their hoses and unsheathe their tall ladders. My neighbors stood across the street and watched in horror; some shouted in panic. The 5th-floor residency, which none of them ever knew existed, was engulfed in flames. The truck sirens pierced my ears but I was too tired to cover them. Somehow, I felt relieved my decision had been made for me.
The group looked at me briefly as I approached and then back to the spectacle in front of them, completely unaware the apartment being turned to ashes was mine. I stood alongside them, not bothering to talk and watching in awe as all my dreams floated away in the rising black cloud of smoke. I felt something brush up against my leg, which caused me to jump. Nero's little black tail swayed back and forth as he looked up at me with big innocent eyes. Nero sat down and turned his head to watch the blaze, so I did the same. We stayed like that for a few minutes, silent. What seemed like hours later, he rolled himself to his feet and skipped his way down the street, never looking back nor wanting me to follow. Maybe I needed some bad luck, I thought as I made my way to the train station.