Hank brightened considerably, and then just as suddenly his brow was furrowed in gloom. "What if there's no window?" he said.
"I'll make one," I said, pointing to my cue stick. "If you hear some banging, just put on the jukebox."
There was no window, and the walls were too sturdy to bash with a cue stick. We were forced to return and continue the game, which we salvaged with a closing flourish that brought us even. Then we quit, but not before we vowed never in the future to doubt Mort Berger's wisdom.
Eventually I became thoroughly disenchanted with Berger and life at The Stick. There was a succession of small incidents, each of which compounded the previous until finally I believed Berger to be a truly harmful influence on us all. Because of the way he used us for his own gains, no matter how small they might be, we had taken it as a mark of distinction to be able to use each other in the same way. For example, when we saw how easily Berger destroyed The Worm's pool game with his little irritations, we all took a shot at The Worm in the same way. We humiliated him, really, because in destroying his game we were actually bringing to the surface his moral weakness for everyone to see. Ostensibly, we did this to win his money but I think subconsciously it gave us pleasure to watch him twitch with the pain of his inner torment. Our pleasure came from knowing that we were his superiors, that we were made of sterner stuff, that each one of us had the power to make him squirm like bait on a hook, and so he became a scapegoat through whom we reaffirmed our strength by every day exposing his weakness.
It had also begun to occur to me that Berger was a destructive influence on Hank. When Hank had been thrown out of his home by his parents, Berger encouraged him to begin sleeping in The Stick. He helped reinforce Hank's belief that his parents didn't understand him, rather than, as most adults would have done, encourage Hank to seek a reconciliation. Berger was thinking less of Hank's future or, rather, loss of future, than of The Stick's immediate gain. I could imagine Hank 20 years from then, his skin puffy and chalk-gray, bending over a pool table to rack the balls or sweeping the previous night's dust and cigarette butts out the front door in the morning.
But these incidents in themselves would probably never have disenchanted me completely if it were not for my having been told of Gary's collapse. It had been obvious that Gary's physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. His neck and stomach would be bloated horribly one day and deflated just as horribly the next. He had grown so weak that often he had trouble shooting a cue ball with any authority. One day while he was in a nine-ball game with Len the Worm, he had difficulty straightening up from the table after bending over for a shot. After another shot he fell over backward. He was fully conscious, lying on his back, his eyes wide but unseeing.
"It was a frightening look," said Joe McNeill. "Not a look of fear or pain or anything, but one of recognition, as if Gary was finally face to face with something that had eluded him all this time, and that now he had resigned himself to. Len, Speedo and I helped him up. He said, 'I'd better go home.' We drove him there, and his mother met us at the door. She told us to help Gary over to the couch in the living room and then as we left she said, 'Thank you for bringing my son home.' He died two days later."
The day Joe McNeill told me that story was the last day I spent in The Stick. With Gary's death I finally realized that my existence there, and that of all the regulars, was self-defeating, that it led nowhere, serving only as an escape from problems that could never be solved as long as we shut ourselves up each day inside that room. I blamed Berger partly for Gary's death. Maybe not for his actual death, but for the way he had contributed to Gary's wasting of his life. I felt that if it had not been for Berger's hypnotic influence over Gary, he would have found a more gratifying way to spend his last days rather than spilling them out over a pool table trying to hustle Len the Worm out of a $5 bill that he would never be able to spend.
I left The Stick and enrolled in a nearby college, was graduated some five years later and became a high school English teacher. During my first year as a teacher I noticed a small story in the newspaper one day that told of the closing of The Stick. It had been shut following a raid by federal narcotics agents. By then, the late '60s, drugs had swept into Fairfield County, and it did not surprise me that The Stick had become a hangout for the town's junkies. It seemed to be just the logical extension of a pattern of existence that had been set up years before by Mort Berger. I scanned the story for his name and the names of other regulars I had known but could find none. I did not know those arrested, and I wondered what had happened to Berger. Then I put the paper down and forgot about it.
Probably I would never have thought again of Mort Berger or The Stick if I hadn't run into Hank a year ago. While browsing in a bookstore in Bridgeport, I looked up to see Hank stacking books. He was recognizable even after seven years, heavier, but with the same furrowed, serious look about him, only now it did not seem so brooding and ill-fitting on a man of 26. He recognized me also, and we began to reminisce. I told him that I was a teacher, and he said that he was in his third year of college. He had received his high school diploma while serving in the Air Force, and the government was paying for his college education. I asked him if he ever saw any of the other regulars these days. He said yes. Hambone was a certified public accountant who only occasionally drove down to the Big A to place a modest wager. Joe McNeill was engaged, and Speedo, of all people, was a responsible businessman with a wife and child. "And of course you know about The Rodent," he said with a smile. "I guess Mort Berger would be proud of him today."