There was a barrel of fish in the basement, by the pool table. The barrel was full of brine, and when somebody ordered fish, the cook would come downstairs and grab one from the barrel. That’s how it was done then. Augie was also down there, an awful lot, practicing trick shots on the pool table. The felt had small rips in it and so many beverages had been spilled on it, so many greasy burgers unwrapped on it, so much friction applied to cleaning it up, you couldn’t be sure at first glance that it was green or even felt.
Once somebody put a box of new plates on it, and left it there a couple of days. Augie smashed all the plates one by one and put them back in the box. He came upstairs and said, ‘Somebody should get that box of busted dishes off the pool table. I’m working on my butterfly shot.’ Then he went out to have (he said) a cup of coffee. Everyone had heard the dishes breaking. No one spoke for a while. There was just Nat King Cole on the radio, that’s how long ago this was. Finally the cook said, ‘Billy, take care of that, would you?’
Billy carried the box of broken dishes into the alley out back. He decided he would bring it back to his apartment after work. Maybe glue one dish back together and stick it on the wall, like a hunting trophy. He set the box down on top of one of the garbage cans.
When Augie returned he told everyone he’d changed his mind. He was not going to work on his butterfly shot after all, but a new trick shot he’d thought up. He was going to call it ‘the lobster.’ Shortly the sound of balls clacking rose from the cellar. One of the dishwashers asked Billy what the heck Augie did, anyway? When he wasn’t in the basement practicing trick shots? And Billy said he had no idea, although that was not true.
After his shift Billy zipped up his windbreaker and went to retrieve the box of broken dishes from the alley. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Paula. She was standing in the mouth of the alley, backlit by the neon sign of the Chinese food place across the street, and Billy couldn’t tell who was looking at him. He thought it might have been a girl he’d noticed around the neighborhood, who always wore a goofy kind of necklace with painted blue stones or shells. Or maybe it was Paula, who’d worked in the used book store a while back.
‘I got a plan,’ said Billy.
‘Guys with plans,’ said Paula. Billy realized that without seeing her face, he wasn’t sure about how to interpret her tone of voice. Weird. When she moved, the neon light bounced around her jacket, which must have been leather or leatherette. She leaned over the box. ‘Huh. I thought it was a box of abandoned kittens.’ She picked up one of the shards.
‘Maybe it is,’ said Billy. She nodded. There was just enough light spilling into the alley that he could see her brief tiny smile. It did something to him he had no words for.
They went to her place to glue the blue & white fragments to a cheap skirt which she was fond of, but required some sort of metamorphosis. All the bits of broken dish were too large & heavy so they smashed them up until there were almost enough usable fragments to rescue the skirt. ‘It isn’t there yet,’ said Paula. She went into her bathroom and came back with a make-up mirror. ‘A dozen little pieces of this, here, here, along this, and over here.’
Billy covered it with a dishtowel and asked for a hammer or a paperweight. She gave him a rolling pin. He wondered if she made pies.
‘I guess you’re not superstitious,’ said Paula.
‘I am, though,’ said Billy, and he broke the mirror.
Everything, he realized much later, would have been different if he had said something else. He would have met people he never met. Paula would not have decided to kill him one night while he was sleeping, and then changed her mind when there was a flare of laughter from the TV in the next apartment. (She told Billy about that when they ran into each other once in another city. He wasn’t sure he believed her.) (By then Nat King Cole was not on the radio any more, except at Christmas time.)
She picked out the 12 pieces of broken mirror that she needed and they swept the rest into a paper bag Billy took with him when he went home.
A couple nights later she wandered into the café to show Billy the skirt. Augie was writing the next day’s breakfast special on the chalkboard and immediately registered the fragments of broken dish (although not the fragments of broken mirror) and said, ‘Hey, Paula, there are times and places in history when you coming in here in that skirt would mean you were all mine.’
‘Not this place and not this time,’ she said. Augie pressed his lips together and went to the cellar to practice the lobster shot.
Eventually he abandoned the lobster shot, but that was months away.
‘Wow,’ said Billy. Paula held out the hem of the skirt and Billy saw, or at least thought he saw, 12 reflections of himself.
‘I can never clean it, is the thing,’ said Paula. In fact she couldn’t sit down without leaving a residue of powdered ceramics and glass. It was in essence a one night skirt, like a beautiful insect that emerges from its chrysalis and falls to dust at the end of a long, dazzling life 12 hours later.
‘Why would you want to?’ said Billy.
They went somewhere else and the skirt reflected all kinds of things, for a while.