"What kind of game can you play?"
"I don't know for sure. I haven't played much...."
"Listen, I'll play any game you want," he said.
" Chicago. Dollar a point. You spot me the six, nine and break." I smiled as I racked the balls.
Driving home later that evening I fingered the crumpled bills stuffed in my pocket. Fifteen dollars was almost as much money as I made with the mason in one day.
The following morning I put on my work clothes, grabbed my lunch bucket, kissed my wife and drove directly to The Stick. I never lugged another brick for the mason and became instead a regular of Mort Berger's emporium. Like the others, I came partly to make some easy money. Mostly I came because the excitement and easy camaraderie helped me forget, for the time, an abortive baseball career. Outside the pool hall it would come back to me, troubling and confusing me, so I found myself spending as many hours as possible within the safe bowels of The Stick. When my wife asked where I was until all hours of the night, I told her I'd begun working overtime for the mason.
In recent years I have begun to wonder whether any of us would have spent so much time at The Stick were it not for Mort Berger. Without him The Stick would have been a dispirited place. Berger was the first adult to treat many of the regulars as equals. He introduced them to a thousand new delights: pill pool, jack-up, stud poker. Jack Daniel's whiskey, races at the Big A and stag movies at his home. The fascination was not so much with those delights but with the manner in which they were presented. For example, Berger played pool disgracefully. He was always talking or dropping his stick when someone was shooting a money ball; he was always "accidentally" moving a money ball with his stomach or his shirt or his elbow so as to put it in a better position for his next shot; he was always stealing balls we'd made and sticking them in his rack, and generally cheating in so many ways, so outrageously, that much of our entertainment came from watching his antics and trying to catch him in some new ploy that would be the topic of our conversation for the rest of the day. To catch Berger cheating became a game with us. It gave proof of our emerging shrewdness, of our ability to know when we were being hustled.
And no one ever doubted for a moment that Mort Berger was hustling us all. We knew that he organized games of pool so as to get as many shooters as possible on a table and thus assure the management a decent day's income. We knew that he agreed to buy whiskey so that he could charge us a $1 "handling fee"; that he held the poker sessions at his home so he could take 25� out of every pot "just for the house, boys"; that he held the stag movies so he could charge an "entertainment fee" for a film whose images flickered and faded so frequently that none of us can remember seeing a single erotic act performed on his gray walls. In short, we knew Mort Berger was using us, but we did not mind paying. Most of us were not sure whether he liked us or simply considered us reliable sources for his own gains.