"How did you win your first two games?" He shook his head at the poorly chosen shot. It hadn't come close. The cue ball rolled to the center of the green, felt table. The position set up a good turn for him.
The player who had just missed the shot shrugged.
They hadn't been close friends. That was why they hadn't seen each other in five years. They'd marched out of their first class reunion in a group of a dozen to find the nearest pool hall. Like most of the group, they'd bought drinks at the bar. One of their mutual friends got the bright idea of holding an eight-ball tournament within their reunion class. So they'd put their drinks on the stands next to the pool tables, paired off, and competed like the rest. After two rounds, they met in a game.
"I hear you own an aikido studio," his opponent said. He propped his pool cue between his legs and leaned against it.
"Yeah. I'm doing okay." He rolled up his sleeves. It made him conscious of how he was one of the few in their class who had remained athletic. "I earned my shodan when I was still in school. And I'd always wanted to start my own business."
The aikido master made his shot into the corner pocket. He'd left himself poor position, however, so he rimmed around the next one, an attempt at a side pocket. His opponent stepped up, aimed a different ball at the same side pocket, and sank it.
"You used to be the worst," said the master. "You were sick all the damn time or claimed you were. You had panic attacks when girls talked to you. Now you're an emergency technician? Those are the folks who ride around in ambulances."
His opponent nodded.
"How did that happen? The sight of blood made you vomit. Actually, I was just thinking about how you freaked out in friendly games like this one. When the pressure was on, you froze up. But you seem better now."
"Oh." The emergency technician set down his cue for a moment. He picked it back up in his weak hand and, without bothering to set his feet, he tapped the cue ball into the corner. It was a deliberate move to make the next shot hard. "I decided to be the guy who's great under pressure. You know what I mean. When times are tough, one guy gets calmer and more sure of himself. I decided it needed to me."
"Just like that?" He checked the lie of the ball. It made him curse. There was no easy shot.
"It took me a while. But I made it in less time that you might think, about two years. You might count it as three or four if you saw the extra practice that I put in."
"How can you practice something like that?" He wandered around to a different side of the table to see if he could find a better angle. The pool hall kept the lights bright over the tables but dark everywhere else. The shadows cast by the balls were sharp.
The emergency technician sighed. His voice lowered.
"I've never told anybody," he confessed. "It's funny that you're an aikido master. At the time, I thought of what I was doing as mental judo. After all, confidence comes from success, right?"
"That's how it worked for me." He gave up aiming. His eyes told him there was nothing he could do. "And for everyone, I guess."
He poked the cue. His shot scattered a cluster of balls. The two players watched the balls bounce off of the rails and listened to the clacks of them as they made contact with one another again.
"Yeah, but you were always pretty successful. Not me." He strode up to the white ball. With a smile, he gave it a gentle push at a corner shot. It rolled slightly off line, a miss. "Confidence comes from success but confidence is necessary for success. To get good at anything, you have to feel good."
"That seems pretty much right."
"But I was prone to panic." He rested the cue stick on his shoulder. "I spent a lot of time in self-loathing and depression. I couldn't break out of it without confidence. And I couldn't find the confidence without a success I didn't have. There had to be a trick. I had to take momentum from somewhere."
The aikido master put out his hand and waited for the emergency technician to continue.
"You have to have to decide to have confidence. You make it part of your inner nature. I know it sounds crazy but I started to put myself into all of those situations I hated. I talked to girls. I played basketball."
"Wow, I remember you in the gym. You shot like crap. Horrible." The image that came to his mind made him chuckle.
"I got better. Want to put some money on this game?"
The emergency technician was down by a ball. The cue ball lay near a rail but it wasn't trapped. It was the aikido master's turn and he had a clear advantage. The emergency technician hadn't been wealthy while in school and he hadn't dressed up for the event. He wore jeans and a plain shirt. The stakes he'd be able to put up would be low.
"Sure," he said. He pulled out his wallet. "How much?"
"How much do you have?"
"Shoot, I've got a whole week's take from the studio." The question surprised him. He had meant to take the money to the bank deposit slot but he'd thought it might come in handy at the reunion.
"That's a lot."
His emergency technician friend took out his wallet in turn. He kept a lot of cash, enough to cover the sum of the studio receipts. He counted it out. A lot of folks around the pool tables looked at the stack of bills. But the emergency technician didn't seem worried. "I've got it that much. Let's play for it. Shake on the bet."
"Crap, man." He shook hands with his opponent. Immediately, he felt misgivings. The more he thought about taking that much money from an old school acquaintance over a bet, the less he liked it. "You're down by a point. And I'm pretty good at this. Do you want to start over?"
"I don't know." The other man's calmness unnerved him a little. Could he lose that much and be fine? Maybe he was wealthier than he looked.
"Let's see what happens."
The aikido master steeled himself. He spent longer with his aim than usual, took his shot, and sank it. Now he was two points up. The cue ball rolled into a decent position for another corner point. He took his time but he knew, when he struck it, that he wasn't on line. His follow-up rattled out.
As the emergency technician played, his limbs steadied. He started to smile before his first shot, which he landed in a corner pocket. Then he was down by only one. He lined up his second shot. The physical effects of his mental judo were visible. His movements were smooth.
"At first, I would make trick basketball plays all alone in my backyard." He paused for his pool shot. He sunk the green ball in a side pocket. That tied the game. "I would pretend people were teasing me. Then I would pretend I was the cool-head guy. And I would shoot."
"So you did practice!" The aikido master smiled.
"Yeah." His friend smiled back at him. "I practiced against real people, too. I would talk trash. They would get pissed and try to throw me off my game. But I was the cool-head guy, right? To myself, I was. Even when I missed my shot, I knew it was because of me, not them."
"Were you sure? Really?"
The emergency technician leaned down for this third shot in a row. This one rolled straight and true. It tapped the brown ball and pushed it to the corner pocket. The touch was a trifle too gentle. The ball rolled to a halt at the lip of the pocket.
The aikido master felt the hairs on his arms prickle. That had been close. His palms sweated. He wiped off his right hand onto his pants. The week's worth of salary burned in his pocket. He didn't think he could allow himself to lose it. It was on his mind as he surveyed his position, which didn't look good.
He had an open shot at a side pocket. That was the one to take. But he was aware that he hadn't made a shot in a side pocket during the whole evening.
"Crap." Even as he let the cue stick slide, he knew he'd missed. His aim was worse than ever. His cue ball passed to the right of its target.
"Bad luck," said his opponent, somewhat generously. He eyed the lie of the white ball.
Behind them, a door swung wide. The smell stale beer and the fresh, outside air wafted over them.
The aikido master expected his opponent to aim at the brown ball that sat at the lip of a pocket. But his opponent tried for a more difficult shot. He knocked in the yellow ball at the far side. The cue ball rolled back to him in perfect position to aim at the brown.
"After a while," he said, "I was only showing myself that I'd become who I thought. I was good in the clutch. I was that guy."
He sank his shot. He had only one ball left, the black eight.
"This corner," he said. There was a tournament rule that they had to call the last shot. He gestured to his stick where he was going to put it. Then he leaned down, poked the cue ball, and bounced the eight into the corner. For a moment, the aikido master held his breath. He thought he might escape. But the shot fell in.
"Oh crap." The master slumped. He put his hands on his knees and took a deep breath. "A whole week's cash."
"Yeah. And then something important happened."
"What could be more important?" He was thinking of his rent money. He hadn't paid for his studio space this month.
"I came across a traffic accident. It was a bad scene with a guy bleeding out. No one was doing anything."
"Even little spots of blood made you throw up." He tried not to think about the rent. Someone dying should be more important. But it had happened years ago.
"I was the cool-head guy now, right? I pulled the glass out of his arm. I applied pressure to the wound and to the artery leading to it. He was losing consciousness when the ambulance arrived. I was a mess, blood all over my shirt and pants. But the emergency technicians took a look at what I'd done and said I'd saved the guy's life."
"Nice." With a sigh, he pulled out his wallet again. He knew it was best to get this over with. Then he could think about how to come up with the money for rent.
His emergency technician friend took out his wallet, too. The master started to hand over the money.
"Just give me one bill," said his friend. He pulled it from the middle. It crinkled as he folded it, without looking at the amount, into his wad of cash. "Put the rest away. Don't bet too large with me again, not unless you can really lose it, okay?"
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "Yeah."