Pool hall drama - Editor
Hooch, Whores and Hustling
by Larry Crain
The smooth green felt of the six pool tables and two snooker tables drew the crew like nourishing, green oases in the desolate desert that was the old part of town. Joe’s Emporium sat on a gradual hill where the bricks of the original Main street caused a staccato hum in the tires of the few cars that bothered to chug up, slide by and turn down toward the abandoned factories and the train depot that you would swear was empty, except for the sound of metal on rails as trains twice a day made the slow curve that paralleled Main.
To some, Joe’s was a dump, with worn, uneven wooden flooring, faded maroon brick walls with chunks of mortar missing and ever-present small piles of cigarette butts and peanut shells. But where it counted, the Emporium was perfection. Oh, those tables. Yes, every antique, solid wood rail was covered with scorch marks from years of burning cigarettes placed hanging over the edge by shooters that then forgot about the fags until they burned down and charred the finish. And interspersed with the burns were four inch rings from melted ice on Joe’s signature chilled beer mugs. Inside the boundaries of those table rails, though, was sacred territory. The traditional hunter green felt was always as if it had just been stretched and installed new each morning. The slate was an inch thick, perfectly flat and perfectly smooth. With no channels or roll-offs, you could shoot a ball as soft as a kiss and it would roll forever until it touched precisely where it was expected at the far end of the table.
“Smoker! Delivery across the way!” Gerry yelled. He didn’t bother to turn around from the flat grill that was right behind the bar because he knew the acoustics would carry his voice to the wall and up and across the curved ceiling and back down to the tables. Smoker sauntered slowly over and put his cue in a specific place in a specific rack. He went real slow because it was not cool to seem anxious to go across the street, though of course he was.
“Smoke! I don’t want ‘em cold!” Barry loved it when people call him Smoker, or his other nickname, Spunk. It was hard to feel like Fast Eddie or Fats if you were called Barry. The moniker “Smoker” came about because he kept a lit cigarette in his mouth while knocking down balls. If he got on a good run, his lips would dry out and the cigarette would stick to the flesh. He considered it a badge of a real shooter and had learned to kind of roll the cig off his lip so the guys couldn’t tell it hurt. And the name Smoker did double duty because it sounded like he could Smoke the competition.
The bells tied to the crossbar on the glass front door jangled and a burst of hot street air rushed into the room. An about 30-year-old guy in a denim jacket faded from use, not style, stepped into the relative dimness of the interior, which was broken into small islands of bright pool table lights. The guy had a break-down pool cue in a shiny black Naugahyde case. Greg leaned toward Jimmy and said, just loud enough for Jimmy’s ear, “fish.”
This kind of moment was replayed several times a week. The crew fancied themselves to be hustlers, and to a low level, they were. They gambled on every game they played, but generally low stakes against each other. It was the out of town fish that allowed them to pay Gerry for all the hours a day they played without using their own money. This was good, since none of them had time for a job anyway.
Jimmy turned slightly so he could see the door without being obvious. He was hoping there would be a second player. The skill level of the crew was good enough that maybe one really talented interloper might beat one of the crew, but it was unlikely two of them playing partners could beat two of the better house players. But no, Jimmy was a little disappointed; this was a single.
The forthcoming routine was fairly standard. No pool player walks into a strange pool hall and challenges the best player in the house like screenwriters seem to think they do. It’s a more subtle competition. It’s like a dance where both dancers are trying to lead.
The roughly dressed player scanned the room from wall to wall, and then sat at the bar by the door. He ordered a beer, not a brand, just a beer, which came in an ice-coated mug. He sipped it while he made small talk to the back of Gerry’s head and watched the action.
The guys were shooting snooker. The main reason they preferred snooker was that it’s a much more complex game than eight ball or nine ball, which could get pretty boring at 8 hours a day. And, there were other benefits. One was that after shooting snooker’s smaller balls into smaller pockets at a greater distance, when you moved to a pool table for money games, the pockets seemed the size of basketball goals no farther than the end of your cue. The other benefit was the dance. It was harder for any challenger to gauge your pool game on a different table.
The player got a tray of balls that had a cue ball and two cubes of blue chalk perched on top and a rack and went to the first empty pool table near the snooker tables. He dumped the balls on the table and, without racking them, started putting them down like he was playing straight pool. The player went one tick up in Jimmy’s and Rex’s assessment of his skill level. Not because of how well he was shooting; no one would shoot up to his level of ability during the dance; but because straight pool is a player’s game, while eight and nine ball are beer drinkers’ games.
Rex slightly raised his eyebrows to Jimmy. Jimmy, who was, most days, the best player of the group, and a southpaw, very slightly swung his head left then right. He had seen that the player had to look when he screwed the two halves of his cue together. He should have been able to do it by feel. He got pegged a notch down for either having a new cue or being new at hustling.
You would not think being a lefty would give Jimmy an advantage like it would in boxing or some other one-on-one sport, but it did. Good pool players study a table, but they are not looking at the shot. They are looking at the layout of the balls and several shots ahead. Shooters focus on strategy and control of the cue ball. The actual shot is taken using what jocks call muscle memory. You just lean over, breath out and pull the trigger. It’s like the difference between a gunslinger that pulls and shoots and kills versus someone who has to take time to aim and out-thinks himself. Jimmy’s advantage in the dance was that when you watched him shoot, most of the pictures your eyes took were matched with the hundreds of thousands of similar pictures you had etched in your brain, except that the part that was Jimmy was backward. Messed ‘em up.
Cole, who was from the East side and poor and not excessively verbose, was partnered with Rex, who was a big boy and a bigger loudmouth. Greg, who favored long-sleeved sweatshirts under sleeveless tees, even in the summer, was standing in for Smoker while he trucked the burgers. Rex clomped over to Jimmy and said, a bit louder than he should have, “I want this one.” Rex tended to overestimate his own talent.
“You couldn’t beat your mama, you crew cut candy ass,” Jimmy came back, loud and sincere enough for the player to hear. It was better they didn’t look like a tag team.
There was a hierarchy within the crew based on skill. Jimmy got first crack at new meat. If he passed, it went to Ed, but Ed, whose girlfriend gave him married-style grief about being a pool hall fixture, wasn’t there. Next was Smoker, who, just then, came strutting in from seeing the Ladies.
“Jeeeezzzuz! They looked good! I’d never pay for it, but if I did, I’d take a bag a burgers and spend the day. Thigh high silk and swingin’ jugs. Kee-riste!” Smoker had either had a good trip or he wanted the others to think he had.
Normally, the next half hour would have been minutely detailed discussion and re-discussion of the body parts Smoker had seen and the relative attractiveness of the three of the Ladies whose names they knew, Alice, Bonnie and Cherise. But there was a sheep to be sheered. The shine in Jimmy’s eyes from under his curly blond bangs was enough to get Smoker’s attention. Smoke was only five foot eight when he stood up straight and near bone thin, but he had a lot of respect. He seemed to know something about almost anything and had coasted through school despite spending more time at Joe’s than in class. And he had a facility for skewering friend and foe alike with wit that everyone except the target found funny. Lastly, and most importantly, next to Jimmy, he was considered the best clutch shooter when a game got tight.
The player picked up one of the cubes of blue chalk and started delicately scraping the open edge against the tip of his cue, moving it around to deposit an even chalk layer. Smoke brushed back his hair and looked at Jimmy while the player was focused on his cue tip. Ninety-five percent of people chalk up by just sticking their cue in the hole in the chalk cube and twisting. It’s impossible to get a decent, even layer of chalk that way. Real players always use the edge.
“Okay, Smoke, go get that fifty bucks you owe me.” Jimmy chuckled at his ability to be magnanimous, exert his authority and take a jab at Smoker, all at the same time.
“Hey, man. They fallin’?” though Smoke knew exactly how the balls had been falling. He had ambled over to Gerry a few minutes ago and made small talk so he could watch the player shoot, the same way the player had done to the room.
Gerry ran Joe’s Emporium. No one knew if there was a real Joe, or if the name was just left over from maybe decades ago and nobody wanted to pay to have a new name painted on the glass door. There was no sign. Gerry stood between the small bar with only six seats and the flat, diner-style grill from the time the place opened at ten ‘till it closed at one in the morning. He didn’t look like an owner – three missing teeth, perpetual stubble on his mottled scalp and cheeks, and the same clothes for days in a row – but, he sure acted like the owner. Customers paid for table time by the half hour and didn’t have to pay for their burgers and drinks until they were done. Somehow that man could keep track of the running tab of every customer all day long and he was never wrong.
“Damnation,” the player said as he missed a cross bank by about four inches, probably on purpose. “Call me Bud.”
Snicker. “’cause that’s what you drink?” Smoker was proud to have just thought that one up, but the player was not impressed.
“Naw, don’t drink much.” His once-iced mug was still three-fourths full and now dry on the outside.
Smoke got started. “Wanna shoot a game?”
Without looking up while powdering his left hand, “Nine ball, five and ten?” Meaning five dollars for taking down the five ball and ten dollars for the nine.
Apparently there was no need for chit chat. Fine with Smoke. “Awright.”
Smoker had taught the crew that conventional wisdom and popular fiction were bullshit about how hustling really works. “The biggest fish in the world is the fool that lets you win early games, trying to sucker you into a big money game. Smart money wins every game you can and walks with some cash. Forget the big score for you and you eliminate it for the fish. If he cusses you for not letting him get his money back by jackin’ the bet, piss on ‘im. Let ‘im pay for the lesson you just gave ‘im.” The crew sometimes actually beat cash out of better players than themselves by following this rule.
“Lemme grab a stick.” Smoker had put his house cue up on the wall while he made the burger delivery. Only it wasn’t exactly a house cue. There were twelve cue racks spaced around the side and back walls, each stocked with six to eight cues in their slots each morning. The small bar ran from the large glass window by the front door down the left wall toward the rear. One of the cue racks was behind the end of the bar, next to the small prep counter and grill, where Gerry kept an eye on it. Those were the crew’s cues.
Gerry, or Joe, or whoever, didn’t buy the industrial strength clubs that passed for cues in bowling alleys and strip clubs. He bought straight, balanced weapons in a variety of weights, lengths and girths. Each of the crew had a slot in the cue rack behind the bar where his “house” cue rested, unmolested by the riff-raff. When Smoker casually wandered over and chose a cue that looked like any other, it wasn’t. It was a tool just as tailored and familiar to Smoker as the player’s ivory inlaid was to him.
The player racked the balls and let Smoke break. Nothing down. The player ran the first five balls to go five up, sank the six and rattled the seven in and out of the far left corner pocket. Smoker popped the seven in and drew back the white ball into a straight-in eight-nine combo. Up net five.
When the player, as the loser of the first game, started to gather the balls and arrange them in the rack, Smoke said, “You know, Bud, you don’t have to rack those yourself.” He then turned and, like a king summoning his minions, barked, “Jerry!”
Both Jerrys looked.
Everyone except Gerry the boss thought this was hilarious. The bossman was Gerry with a G, and his only employee, by some cool, karmic quirk was Jerry with a J. One of the traditions left over from when billiards and its kin were games for gentlemen, was that at Joe’s you could save your fingers for shooting and not racking. Jerry J would rack the balls for you, but because he swept the floors constantly to make those little piles of butts and shells, you had to call for his racking services. Gerry G had tried to get the guys to call for “Jerry J” to rack, but the boys were not about to give up the funniest thing that ever happened in Joe’s, except for the time Ed knocked out Rex with an errant cue ball on the break.
Jerry J leaned his broom against the wall, protectively over a pile of butts he had been creating, and ambled over, wearing his perpetual open-mouthed half grin. Jerry J was a case. He always wore a thin, frayed, plain white shirt that looked like he could have worn it twenty years ago as a businessman. Today, however, and every day the crew could remember, he wore a white bra underneath it. And when he bent over the table to gather and rack the balls, his unbelted pants presented a view of the elastic top of a pair of pink women’s panties.
People new to the Emporium would snigger and surreptitiously point, but Jerry seemed to not notice or to not care. The crew used to make fun, too, but they had stopped. Though his IQ score had to be lower than the points in a good snooker run, he was a nice enough guy and he often bought the crew flavored vodka and sloe gin at the tiny liquor store next door.
“Watch this,” Smoker said to the player as Jerry reached the table. Smoker took some of the balls out of the cracked leather mesh pockets at the head of the table and rolled them toward Jerry. “Nine ball, Jerry.”
Jerry had probably racked a hundred thousand sets of balls at Joe’s, with a good part of them nine-ball, but one thing Jerry wasn’t was fast. He had to think about it. He became as still as that sculpture, The Thinker, staring quizzically at the table, trying to come up with the correct set of balls, the diamond shape and where to put the money balls.
While he leaned in and stared, the lower lip of his half open grin started collecting saliva. In seconds, the gathering flood was too much for his protruding lip, and a long, bubbly, wet string started slowly growing down toward the table. Its pace was about a half inch a second.
Numerous eyes were fixated on Jerry when Smoker broke the mood, “Jerry - suck it up.” Jerry’s rheumy eyes and posture didn’t change, but his lips pursed and boy did he suck. The four inch sticky string stopped growing and POP - suddenly shrank back up into his mouth.
The player, whose mouth, like Jerry’s, was now half open, either from empathy or amazement, or both, stood transfixed. There was again nothing but silence, until, “That, is the craziest shit, I have ever seen.” He paused. “Way, crazy, shit.”
Jerry’s oral feat helped Smoker win the next two nine ball games, since every time the player heard someone yell “Rack ‘em, Jerry!” he would turn to watch the spittle routine, from Jerry’s measured walk to each table to the final slurp back up into his grin.
Shaking his head, the player finally turned his back to Jerry and tried to get into the flow of the games. “How ‘bout we switch to eight ball,” he asked, maybe hoping to change his luck. He was down forty bills. They agreed on twenty a game.
Smoker got a bad double kiss and scratched on the eight, losing the first eight ball game. In the second, Smoker, who was shooting stripes, had to play safe and left the cue ball on the rail, halfway behind the twelve. The player stepped up and raised the back end of his cue in the air. He used a masse shot to curl the cue ball around the twelve and two feet later it scuffed the three into the side pocket.
Uh, oh, Snooker thought. Lots of people could masse a ball, but not many people could make a ball using it. Was it luck or had Smoke been suckered? The player ran them out.
After Jerry racked and before the player broke for the next game, Smoker asked “You wanna try a different bet?” The player had been waiting for this.
“Well, we’ll call a new rack, and when Jerry comes over, we’ll bet on whether his spit hits the table or not.” Pause. “It’s up to you.”
The player’s eyes thinned just slightly. “That’s stupid. He never drops it.” Now he paused. “How much, and what kinda odds do I get?”
“A hunnerd straight up, but you get to pick which side.”
Real hesitation. “Naw. You mean I get to bet either way on whether the spit hits the table,” the player said, not as a question. He couldn’t decide whether to be suspicious or go with greed and grab the bet while it was on the table.
“Yep,” Smoker verified.
The player was in a quandary. He had watched Jerry rack at least a dozen sets of balls and he had never drooled all the way onto the table. On the other hand, experience had taught him if you take a local’s bet, you’d best do the opposite of the obvious. He had danced before.
They both nonchalantly chalked their cues while Smoker puffed out small streams of smoke from around the menthol Kool stuck in his lips.
Finally, “I’ll do a note if I get to pick it don’t hit the table.”
Smoker rolled the cigarette off his lip. “Deal.” Then his voice raised, “Jerry, rack ‘em!”
When Jerry arrived at the table and placed the rack on the spot, the player, anxious to walk away a winner, quickly rolled the far balls down to Jerry. The two bettors each put five twenties into the nearest corner pocket.
After all fifteen balls had been corralled and situated inside the rack, Smoker said “Jerry, seven ball.”
Jerry never talked - couldn’t or wouldn’t - who knew, but you could sure tell when he was thinking. He stared and stared at the balls. The player stared at Jerry. Smoker stared at the player. And the crew stared at the drool forming on Jerry’s mouth.
When the string reached two inches, even Gerry G half-turned from the grill, as if he were able to time the event like he did everything else that went on in the Emporium.
Jerry seemed to be searching his brain. He appeared confused, as if he was trying to find the right pattern. He could handle eight ball and nine ball. Even straight pool and snooker. But he couldn’t seem to find seven ball in his mental archive.
The player became animated when the swinging spittle reached four inches, “Suck it up, Jerry. Suck it up, god damn you.” He was pissed. “Suck. It. Up!”
It was as if Jerry couldn’t hear him. He just continued to focus on the half-racked balls.
The saliva string stretched, and stretched, and as the player yelped his ineffectual instructions, the semi-liquid rope separated itself from Jerry’s mouth and plopped in slow motion onto the table. The only sound in the whole place was the dull crackle of frying burgers. The stunned player suddenly stepped toward the table and his hand reached for the pocket where the money was. “There’s no such game as seven ball!” he squealed in too high a pitch.
“No, there isn’t,” Smoker calmly agreed as he laid the end of his cue stick over the money pocket. By this time, Rex was standing behind Smoker. Rex wasn’t really a fighter, but, with his size, few people wanted to find out.
The player wasn’t giving up. “I want my green back,” he spat.
“There were no rules, Bud.” Stalemate.
The loser decided to switch his anger toward the easier target - Jerry. “You punk-ass retard – I want my money!” He had his cue half raised like a two-by-four as he stomped in Jerry’s direction.
The rest of the crew moved faster than they normally cared to as they hopped up and formed a loose wall between Jerry and the player.
Jimmy took over.
“Listen, Bud. You didn’t have a chance, but no one cheated you. Jerry may be a retard, but he’s our retard. You could have yelled ’Suck it up’ all day and it wouldna made no difference. He don’t listen to nobody but us about the spit.”
The incensed and confused player realized he had completely miscalculated just about everything about Joe’s Emporium. But his pride wouldn’t let him retreat gracefully. Ignoring Jimmy, he unscrewed his cue and nestled the two pieces inside their case. He took a house cue from the wall, pointed it at Jerry and said in a still irate, but now measured cadence, “You. I will get you. You cost me.” He tossed the cue stick hard onto the table, so it bounced and clattered to the floor. He stamped up the aisle between the tables, past Gerry G, who was disinterestedly still frying patties and toasting buns on the grill, and huffed through the glass dinger door.
The crew each sat back down into their respective favorite stool-chair and had a good ol’ time reliving the previous events. Smoker gave Jimmy three of the twenties and asked, “Got a ten?” He took the change over and stuffed it in racker-Jerry’s shirt pocket as a tip. His fingers could feel the wired edge of the bra, but he tried not to notice.
“Anybody for a quarter a point? Spot you ten.”
At two in the morning, racker Jerry was out back sorting long necks into the cases they had come in. He had already finished the last nightly sweep and brushed down most of the tables. The rest could wait ‘till ten, when he came in. He had restocked the coolers, so there were plenty of empty cases that needed filling.
Jerry liked sorting bottles by moonlight. It was easy and it added a sort of order to the world. He needed simplicity and structure since that thing fourteen years earlier. From amid the clinks of the beer glass and the far-off, baying and barking of stray dogs, came “You get paid today?”
Jerry continued as if he had not heard. “I said. Did you get paid today? In cash?”
Jerry stutter-stepped his feet around so he was facing the voice. The player was standing there with a three foot length of pipe he had apparently scrounged from one of the old factories.
“Look, you damn idiot, give me all the money you have. Now.” Jerry let the bottle in his hand slide into a slot in the beer bottle case to his side and just stood there.
The player stepped up to Jerry’s face and tapped him on the side of the head with the metal pipe. “I’m gonna tattoo that grin off your face, dummy, but let’s get the goods first.” He started feeling inside Jerry’s pockets for cash, while Jerry just fidgeted and fumbled with the waistband of his pink panties.
Just as the player found the ten spot in Jerry’s shirt pocket, the meat knife pushed through the crease between the player’s lower jaw and the top of his throat. Jerry pressed it hard with the fat part of his palm. It was angled toward the back of the player’s head, so the blade ended up four inches into his brain. The handle of the knife felt as tailored and familiar to Jerry’s hand as the crew’s cues did to theirs.
Maybe the player didn’t know yet he was dead, because he stood statue-still as the blood gurgled from the back of his impaled throat into his mouth and dripped slowly down his chin.
Jerry didn’t say it, because he didn’t talk, but he silently thought, “Suck it up, Bud.”