Pool tables were my babysitters growing up. I could walk into any bar in Lincoln County, MO with my dad day or night, and as long as they had a pool table, no one ever suggested that we leave regardless of what time it was.
“Doug Wallace, table six,” crackles over the loud speaker. I walk over and take my place next to the nine-foot brown Brunswick with green felt. The smell of smoke has been my cologne long before I started smoking at the age of thirteen. It hangs in the air like a thick fog in every place I want to be, well into my late 20’s.
A guy who looks to be a couple years older than me steps up to the table. He can’t be over eighteen but he nods at me chin first like I’m the punk kid. I hate when people do that, so I do it back to him. He extends his hand to shake mine and it’s moist and gross and I immediately wipe my hand off on my pants, showing him my disgust. I’m trying to get into his head without saying anything. He just doesn’t know it yet, but the game has already started.
“A good pool player is the sign of a wasted childhood,” or so the saying goes and I’ve wasted a lot of time in pool halls, bars and bowling alleys. He pulls a quarter out of his pocket and says, “Heads or tails?” as if there’s ever any other answer.
“Heads,” I say as the quarter catches the light from the table as it flips, looking like it’s signaling in Morse code, “Quit now,” it seems to say to the tall, wet-handed stranger as the coin lands heads-up on the table.
This particular pool hall has 39, nine-foot, Gold Crown Brunswick tables. There are lined up, one after another like Marines in formation. The guy grabs the eight solid balls and the yellow-striped 9-ball from the ball holder below. He places them in the rack with one ball in the front and the nine in the middle. With a Clack, clack, clack, from the rack, he forms a perfect diamond shape.
Wickie, wickie, wickie, the stick cries out as I rub its tip with chalk, blue dust showers the cigarette-burned carpet below.
“Good luck,” my opponent says.
“I don’t believe in luck,” I say back to him. I believe in making your own luck and it’s done by practicing, but I keep that to myself.
“Ka-Blam!” The balls scream out as they are smashed with a sledge-hammer-like force.
One of the solid-colored balls fall in the corner pocket and sounds like a rock that’s been dropped in a deep pool of water. The remaining balls are scattered over the sea of green like boats in a storm.
“Nice break,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say bottom lip pursed, nodding my head. I’m not acknowledging him, I’m surveying my layout. The remaining spheres reflect the florescence spot light that hangs above. I take one last glance, nod once more and proceed to go to work.
“One in the corner,” I say even though we’re playing nine ball and in nine ball you don’t have to call it.
“Two in the side,” I say.
“You don’t have to call it,” he says.
“Just an old habit,” I say. Click, Click, Click, one by one they all disappear.
“Nine in the corner,” I say. Stroke, stroke, stroke—click. The ball rolls slowly to the corner. The familiar, thump follows.
I come out of my stance like a cat stretching and I walk over to shake my opponent’s hand, but before I can get to the other side of the table to shake his hand, he turns and walks away without saying a word. My sixteen year old brain thinks, eighteen is much too late to start playing pool.