Grown-up, manly. The smell of those places had me intent on playing it cool, trying to look like I belonged. It was all grey clouds and aftershave and chalk dust. That’s how the pool halls smelled before the government nixed lighting up in public spaces. Probably for the best, but I do miss that smell. Sometimes when I close my eyes in the dark of night and breathe deep enough, I can catch it.
I miss my dad too. He first took me to a pool hall when I was six and I sat on a stool, sipping fountain Coke, watching him rack and collect, rack and collect. He was so smooth, even when he was playing rocky.
He used to say, “Sammy, only thing you gotta watch out for is a pool shark,” and he’d grin at me, the eye teeth pointed like wolf fangs.
One time a drunk woman yelled at my dad after her boyfriend gambled a necklace the man had bought her and lost. She said, “You’re nothing but a shark,” and he grinned that grin. The man cringed and folded into himself, ashamed.
We used to go on the road, most places the same as the last. Sometimes we had to run, but always my dad won. Until that last time when I learned what to watch for, the real pool sharks.
Mom was gone by then and Dad had to make double to keep the house. He was always talking about 26% mortgage rates, and that we had to keep winning or we’d lose it all, and how it’s pretty fun anyway, the thrill of the big win. I wasn’t worried. I thought nobody could beat my dad.
Eleven days after my tenth birthday, we went to this real classy joint. A private place. It had neon signs and Elvis on the jukebox. It smelled like fine cigars instead of cigarettes, and halfway through the first game, my dad was whispering and looking over his shoulder real funny at me. A minute later, he was behind on the table and he came to me with just three balls left, two of them his and it wasn’t even his shot, and he said, “Sammy, you know I love ya, but these are our moneymakers, so it’s gotta be you.” He wiggled his fingers as he spoke.
I nodded, felt proud because I didn’t get it. Didn’t understand that Dad was using me in the bet. It had never gone like this before, this had to be part of a ruse. So the other man, the guy who owned the joint, he looked down at the cue ball and the eight ball and just shook his head. He was bald, but on purpose bald, and had strong arms and big hands. He was light brown and wore a beaded necklace with a shark’s tooth dangling.
He exhaled and followed through just as smooth as buttermilk and the eight fell into the pocket while the cue spun tight circles, hardly going anywhere at all. My dad was looking at me out of the corner of his eye and he whispered, “I’m sorry, Sammy, but it can’t be me. It’s how we live.”
Naïve as I was, I just said, “It’s okay, Dad. You’ll beat him next game.”
See, Dad lost lots of first games and second games, that’s how he got guys betting. Trick them into thinking they had a chump with money to burn.
“Sure,” Dad said.
The man leaned against a wall and pressed a button, and a gentle dud-dub bathtub sound came from near the pool table. It was like those quarter-a-play tables, with the pockets all closed off, but it didn’t take a quarter to play. Never did in private places, and this place was as private as it got.
“One of you gotta rack ‘em,” the man said.
“That’s you,” Dad said.
I got down off my stool and wasn’t thinking much, moving on instinct. I went to the table and did how I always did when I approached from the side and put one hand in a corner pocket and one in a middle pocket. They felt empty, but I’d seen the balls go down so I reached a bit deeper.
That’s when I learned about pool sharks.
I tried to reef away as soon as I touched water, but those razor teeth had both my hands. My wrists were free above the table, but the small sharks that had clamped onto my flesh were too big to fit through the pocket holes. I screamed for my dad to help me, but he wouldn’t. The owner stared down my dad like he was mad at him. I yanked and yanked and yanked and screamed and screamed and screamed. The blood was spraying and running. The felt of the table turned black and I finally fainted.
I woke up in a hospital with bandages over my nubs. Dad wasn’t there and I never saw him again.
That man who owned that table was a tough one. Maybe the best. My father was foolish, but I don’t think he was a fool. But there’s always guilt. My guess, he doubled down, but used his own hands, or his head.
Then again, maybe he’s still out there, swimming in safer waters, spots where pool shark is only an epithet.
Pool Shark © 2019, 2022 Eddie Generous
Eddie Generous has fallen off three different roofs and been lit on fire on multiple occasions. He grew up on a farm and later slept with his shoes under homeless shelter pillows. He dropped out of high school to afford rent on a room at a crummy boarding house, but eventually graduated from a mediocre college. He is the author of several small press books, has 2.8 rescue cats (one needed a leg amputation), and lives on the Pacific Coast of Canada.