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I haven't seen The Rodent in almost eight years, but Hank saw him recently in Miami Beach. Hank told him I was writing a memoir about our days at The Stick, and The Rodent became hysterical. He pleaded with Hank to intercede with me. "Tell him not to use my real name," he said. "If my days at The Stick ever get publicized it'll ruin me. In New York they think I have class."
The Rodent knew that if I'd listen to anyone it would be Hank. In 1962 Hank was 17 and considered the most well-balanced and intelligent habitu� of The Stick. He shot a neat, precise, left-handed game of pool and was one of the few shooters I ever remember seeing whose game improved as the bets were raised. He was Berger's "houseman," a term that meant house champion. Hank spent most of his free time in The Stick, often cutting classes at the high school he attended in favor of drifting down to help Berger dust off the tables or empty the garbage in the morning. Those of us who thought about it could never understand why a person of Hank's caliber wasted his time at The Stick. We eventually discovered that he was having trouble both at school and at home. Finally one day he quit school, his parents threw him out of the house and that morning when I arrived at The Stick I saw Hank curled up under a blanket sleeping on the No. 8 table. He continued to sleep in The Stick for the following few weeks, thanks to Berger's generosity. To repay Berger, Hank cleaned up in the morning and generally ran The Stick until the management arrived late in the morning.
The only other regular who shot pool as well as Hank was Gary, a slight, pale 18-year-old with lank blond hair and a face completely devoid of character. His was one of those smooth, fine-featured faces with thin lips and a nose so delicate it seemed to flutter when he breathed. Gary was neatly dressed at the time, his khaki pants pressed and his longish hair watered and combed to the side. He was quiet, almost unobtrusive, and hung back in the shadows, practicing for hours by himself on a corner table. Gary never really participated in much of anything at The Stick during the first few months but seemed satisfied just to observe the action and the life around him. One day he decided that his game had improved enough to challenge me at nine ball. He shot decently for a while but then suddenly, as the pressure mounted, his game disintegrated, and even his features seemed to crumble like a plaster mask that had been cracked all along but only now was showing the fissures. After that game, which he lost, he drifted back into the shadows, practicing daily and declining offers to play anyone for money. About a month later he challenged again. I almost didn't recognize him at first. His clothes were unkempt, his hair disheveled and his handsome face had become bloated and yellowish, much as that of a man in the final stages of dissipation. The glands in his neck were swollen and so was his belly. He had lost teeth, I noticed. We played nine ball for a while, and he was so silent that just to make conversation I asked how he'd been.
Without looking up from his shot he muttered, "I'm still alive, ain't I?" I laughed at this, but he didn't. I later learned that he was not making a wisecrack but stating a fact. He had an incurable disease that should have killed him a year before. That was what accounted for his altered appearance.
Gary beat me for $15 that second time I played him. He played a ruthless game that almost frightened me. He opted for the riskiest shots and more often than not he made them. He eventually became, with Hank, the best "money shooter" in The Stick and, when I asked Hank what accounted for such a sudden change in his game, Hank said, "I guess shooting pool doesn't hold much pressure for someone who knows he should have died months ago."
I was the last of the regulars to arrive on the scene. I found The Stick one summer night after having spent eight hours lugging bricks and mortar up a scaffold for a mason. Inside the orange building I could hear the screech of chalked cue tips, the click of ivory balls and the crash of dollar bills fluttering to the felt—and it was music to dulled spirits. I picked up some balls and began practicing on a corner table. My hands were stiff from carrying the cement buckets, making it difficult to form a bridge through which to put the cue stick. This difficulty of mine did not go unnoticed for long and, as I fumbled about the table, a slim youth ambled over. He leaned against the wall, arms folded, and watched as I smacked the balls about with indiscriminate haste. He took careful note of my cement-stained clothes and my callused fingers. In a matter of minutes, however, I felt my cramped fingers loosen, and the stick, which I had been handling with all the grace of a hod carrier, becoming, as it always did after some shots, an extension of my arm. I did not change my awkward bridge, however, or the manner in which I was punishing the billiard balls. I had spent many afternoons under conical lights in towns like Quincy, Kokomo and Keokuk, and had sent many cue balls galloping across green felt cloth in search of a hiding nine ball. In minor league baseball towns most of the games are played at night, and there are few diversions for the ballplayers during the long summer afternoons. There are movies, limpid blondes with strange accents and, usually, a pool hall. So I picked up pool then, as a diversion from my pitching. But as my pitching deteriorated, pool became, instead, something more.
"Shoot a little nine ball?" said the kid.
I looked up as if surprised. "For money?" I said.
"Why not?" he said with a weak smile.
"I don't know. I can't play nine ball very good."