Lucky Part IV: Lucky and the Doc
Recap: In Part III I was a guest at Lucky’s ranch, listening to stories of his life and politics and anticipating action in town the next day.
I woke up the next morning to a crowing rooster instead of an alarm clock. I could see blue sky through the window and immediately jumped out of bed, feeling extraordinarily refreshed. After a quick shower, I followed the bacon and coffee aromas and found Lucky downstairs, drinking a brew and reading the local paper. “Good Morning! Sleep ok? Bacon and eggs over on the stove. Check out this story here!”
I replied, “Mornin’. Yes, thanks. Where’s the coffee?” And noticed the local newspaper headline was news I had already read back home three days before
In the truck on the way into town, we talked about the upcoming day. “Everyone will play hard,” he said. “I just have to make it look tough.” It was remarkable, the confidence Lucky had. Some of these guys were famous money players. But, I saw Lucky play last year and he did not miss a ball. No one I’ve seen has ever played like that. “I’ll win some money today and everything will be ok.”
My ears perked up. “What do you mean everything will be ok? Does it have to do with the stuff you wrote in your letters?
“Oh, I’ve been ailing a little this last year. Finally went to the Doc and he keeps me under lock and key! Lucky chuckled. “Gets kinda expensive! Don’t have “medical insurance” and I’m eating my savings up.” He wished a push for universal health care were more assertive. Insurance companies and medical costs are the real culprits.
I was speechless. What could be so serious that it would cost Lucky all his savings? My heart was sad for him as I listened. But, as before, Lucky stopped talking about it when we hit town, and I didn’t make an issue of it. It was better not to get into a big discussion like that before a match. I couldn’t think of anything to say to get both our spirits up.
Then, out of the blue, Lucky asked me, “Do you know this old salt, John Antons?” I said, “Sure do. He’s a friend back home.” Come to find out, they knew each other and Lucky had even been sailing with Antons. I told him John used to play pool with my father! We talked, too, about another old friend of his, Eddie Parker, an old time pool hustler who, at this recounting, has passed on to play with the pool gods in the sky. Lucky and Fast Eddie matched up in the early 50’s and went on the road for a while until they had an argument about, guess…money.
We sneaked in the back of the hotel and walked out the front. People were waiting around. It reminded me of the movie High Noon. One cocky guy stepped in front of Lucky and said, “You’re going to lose today.” Lucky just brushed past him, saying to me, “Ronnie Allen said the same thing thirty years ago. He left busted. True champions say nothing. They don’t talk — they just play. That was false confidence. Trying to verbally intimidate the other player shows weakness. I learned that from Caras.”
We walked in and immediately the crowd opened up a path to the pool table. Two city slickers were playing a race to something for a thousand. We waited and watched. The crowd kept sidling by Lucky and peering at him. They looked like a wolf pack on their prey. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. He just watched as if the two guys playing were the marquee match. I noticed the crowd had thinned out from yesterday. Probably losers, leaving town while they still had gas in the tank. A gangly kid standing next to me kept cracking his fingers. I asked him how the ring game went yesterday. He sniffed and said, “Aw, it wasn’t nothin’. Pretty even. Two of ‘em argued over every dollar and finally got throwed out.”
The match ended. It was apparent they weren’t going to play anymore. Maybe they would have continued if Lucky had not shown up. Lucky knew what time it was and just cut to the chase. He spoke clearly and to no one in particular, “Who’s first?” and moved over to a counter near the table and took out his cue. He stood there rubbing Cue Glide on his shaft, ignoring the crowd, who were kind of looking around at each other, waiting to see who would come out first. “Humpf,” said Lucky. Then the young player I’d talked with earlier jumped up and said, “Ok, let’s play some. “
“How much?” Lucky murmered. “Two thousand to nine,” from the kid. The side bets started, so I got in, putting five bills on the set and a bill a game with one guy. I also took a few smaller bets on the set. I figured I’d make fifteen hundred on the match. Pocket change for some…a lot for me. The kid played pretty good, but Lucky won 9 to 4, and the kid sniffled his way out the door. I collected my grand from one guy and the other five from the rest.
One of two men who were hanging together approached and placed two grand on the table. “Bet?” said someone. “Sure,” said I. Lucky made it look tough, won 9-7. The player conferred with his stakehorse. Another two grand on the table. “Bet again?” the stranger said to me. “This time I want two games on the wire for a thousand, nothing on the games.” “Ok” I said. The games went back and forth. The score was 8 to 6, Lucky. I hadn’t told Lucky I was side betting. He broke, made nothing. His opponent was running out. I would be back to square one if this guy got to 7. Somehow he left himself with a bank on the nine and missed it, to my relief. Then Lucky missed and left a small angled cut shot, and I thought, that’s it. The player eagerly shot it but over cut it. He left another bank shot for Lucky. Lucky shot. It looked like it was going in but it settled on the end rail just next to the pocket. He’s planning to lose, I realized! I was reaching into my pocket to get out the money. Thok! What the? The guy miscued, but the cue ball rolled right up to the nine ball, pushed it to the rail, but failed to drop it. Oh brother. Lucky shrugged his shoulders slightly and pocketed the ball. How lucky was I.
The stakehorse was shaking his head, but came up with the money for another set. I tried to signal Lucky and let him know I was betting on him, but I couldn’t get his attention. More bets were placed, mine included, and Lucky broke, then stalled, giving up shots all over the place. He had to be trying to keep the players lined up to play him. While I was winning money by the narrowest of margins, I was thinking about Lucky’s illness, the only thing that would cause him to be playing this kind of pool. He must have needed the money bad.
Lucky pocketed the nine on an early combination to end the third set. “I’m done,” the guy said. “My stakehorse quit, not me.” How many times have I heard that excuse, I thought.
An older man wearing a nice sport coat stood up and asked Lucky to play some One Pocket. “We can bet more … five thousand a game all right with you? Lucky stood there chalking his cue for about ten seconds. Then he looked up at the guy and smiled. “I like that idea,” he said. They posted the money. This guy said, “I know you’ve been stalling – that doesn’t bother me.” Lucky took a break, and the challenger checked over his equipment. Side bets were placed. Chairs were rearranged. I got a good seat and table with a clear view of the pool table, and I was glad to see the old guy who took the other chair didn’t light up a cigarette. The waitress was kept busy taking orders for food and drink. Someone opened the door for a few minutes to clear the air. The atmosphere crackled. The stage was set.
Lucky and the challenger who some said was a lawyer, lagged for the break. Lucky’s ball stopped an inch from the headrail, the challenger’s an inch behind. Lucky reached for the cueball and set it for the break shot. But when he stroked through it, he stumbled, his legs buckling. Time stopped as Lucky flailed his arms in an attempt to regain his balance and not fall onto the table. Oh no! The cue ball hit the rack hard and opened up the table. Balls were scattering all over for an easy run. Then Lucky fell, his body folding to the floor. For a moment no one moved, then pandemonium broke loose. I was the first one to reach Lucky.
“Stay back! Give him air! Call a doctor!” Lucky just lay there. I grabbed a coat someone handed me and placed it under his head. He was conscious and tried to talk to me. “It’s the illness,” he whispered. Oh boy, I thought. I tried to quiet him. “Don’t talk,” I told him. “Just relax, you’re going to be fine.” But he croaked, “Did I make a ball?” Several voices called out, “Yeah, we saw a ball drop in his pocket.” Lucky’s eyes closed, and I leaned down to check his breathing. He seemed to be slipping into unconsciousness. Now the crowd was becoming anxious on another level. “What about my bet?” I heard someone say. “He’s got to finish or he will forfeit the money he posted!” Lucky’s eyes fluttered open. He struggled to raise his arm. In a weak voice, he said, “Let him play for me.” He was pointing to me.
Everyone’s eyes turned to me and lit up. Sure! Yeah! Some people in the crowd betting against Lucky said, “Sure let him finish, if that’s what Lucky wants.” “No!” I protested, trying to tell Lucky I couldn’t do it. I yelled, “Everyone stand back. Give him a break. He’ll finish the game, just give him a break.” The local doctor quickly arrived, and when he saw it was Lucky, he looked really worried. While he checked Lucky over, the crowd stood by, talking quietly. I stayed there with Lucky, and heard the doctor tell him he’d have to take him in to the hospital. Lucky shook his head feebly, and tried to get up, “No, I’m fine, I’m fine. I have to do this first. I can’t go now.” The doctor pushed Lucky back down and insisted. Lucky gave a tired sigh and stared up at me, his eyes pleading. “Drew, you have to play for me. I need you to win for me. Please, Drew, you can do it.” His eyes closed.
I started to sweat. I never heard of this before. The players betting on the match talked it over and all agreed that it was fine with them. Lucky’s challenger sized me up and said, “Sure, he can finish the game. I took a deep breath, stood up, and said, “Ok, let’s do it.” I saw the corner of Lucky’s mouth turn up ever so slightly.
We got him to the doctor’s car, and he kept whispering, “You can do it, you can do it, Drew.” I stood there, watching until it disappeared in the distance. Lucky, I will do this, I promised. I’ll do it for you. Slowly, I turned and walked back into the lion’s pit.
I held Lucky’s cue, finding the balance, stroking the slender shaft. My shot. Oh man, I thought. The first shot was very difficult. If I missed playing it right, I’d sell out…why not just shoot and miss and let this guy win. Just give him the game. All I wanted to do was get in my car and go to the hospital. This game didn’t mean anything. But, with a sigh, I knew was important. Lucky’s health was at stake, and no one was just going to hand him a big wad of money. So the decision was made for me.
As soon as I could get out of there, I got directions from the hotel to the town where the hospital was and took off in a cloud of dust. The hospital really wasn’t much more than a small clinic, in fact, it looked like the veterinary clinic we take our cats to back home. A nurse in bright pink scrubs directed me to a room down the linoleum hall. She wouldn’t tell me anything. I feared the worst, I opened the door but found Lucky sitting up in bed, watching tv and I thought I saw Lucky spinning a pool ball on his finger as he quickly put what ever he was spinning under his covers “Are you all right?” I asked, concerned and confused.
“Did you win?”
“Lucky, are you all right?”
“Did you win?”
“Look, are you all right?” I was beginning to panic. And was he spinning a pool ball on his finger.
“Yeah, I’m ok. Did you win?”
“Lucky, I really need to know what’s going on,” I said to him. “I can’t deal with this. Why are you here? I don’t know what to do. I’m really worried.” Lucky sighed and looked at the ceiling.
“You lost the money.”
Frustrated, I paced the room. “Ok, the first shot was the hardest one of the whole game. When you miscued you messed up the table pretty good. I had to kick the fourteen, and make it or not, leave me good and him tied. The balls were fairly scattered, so I had catch a certain spot to get the leave. I wasn’t exactly geared up for the game, you know,” I stopped pacing and glanced over at Lucky, who was still studying the ceiling. “But I made it, and got the leave.”
I reached in my pocket and pulled out ten thousand dollars and tossed it on the bed. “After that first shot the rest was pretty easy, actually.” Lucky reached out and collected the bills in gnarled fingers. I calmed down, then. I knew he wouldn’t tell me a darn thing until he was good and ready. No use getting into a knot about it. As Lucky smoothed out the bills, it occurred to me he might have done this whole thing to me on purpose. Did he set me up to challenge me? The whole thing seemed planned … choreographed, a real Oscar performance. Stop it, Drew, I said to myself. You don’t know anything about any of this.
The door to Lucky’s room swung open and a doctor came in. When he saw me he asked me to leave for a few minutes. Lucky held up a hand, “No, doc, let him stay.” Then I found out that Lucky really was sick. I didn’t understand all that the doctor said, but the gist of it was that Lucky probably wouldn’t be around a much longer if he didn’t follow orders and take these medications. I looked at Lucky in alarm, but he didn’t seem bothered much by the prognosis. The doctor reassured Lucky that with regular medication and treatment, he’d be able to do pretty much everything right up to D-Day, whenever it came. Then he reamed Lucky up and down for not taking his advice. With a start, I realized he probably hadn’t had the money. Lucky threw me a warning look and said to the doctor, “Yeah, I know, I just keep forgetting.”
Lucky didn’t have to stay long at the clinic, so we drove back to town to get his truck, and I followed him back to the ranch. I felt somewhat reassured by the doctor’s word’s that Lucky was going to be ok as long as he took his medication, and had made sure that he filled his prescription before we left the clinic. Lucky he had money on him, because the stuff cost a fortune without insurance.
Over lunch, Lucky was assuring me he’d be ok, and I should go ahead and head for home. “I have friends here,” he said. “I’ll be fine. But before you go, I want to propose something.” He chugged a half a glass of milk and swiped his mouth. “I want to go on the road. Can you get away for a couple of months?”
Now that was something I didn’t expect. “I thought you never wanted to do that again,” I said, somewhat astonished. “Why now? You’ve got this great place and you seem happy here. Why would you want to go out there when you’ve got this?”
With a twinkle in his eyes, Lucky scratched his head and said, “Well, I thought so too, but you know, if I’m only gonna be around for a little while, I kind of like the idea of shooting some stick. I’m getting kind of tired of this peaceful life anyway. I just need a couple of months to take care of some things here. So what do you think?”
“Let’s do it,” I said without hesitation, already knowing my wife would be supportive and enthusiastic. “I’ll be ready.” I couldn’t turn this down! I was ready to jump up and leave so I could hurry up and get back
“Good,” said Lucky, “and before we go, I will share more pool secrets with you.”
We talked awhile longer, then said our goodbyes, and I left in a cloud of euphoria on one hand, and concern for Lucky’s health on the other.
On the long drive home I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone what we were planning. Or that Lucky was sick. I still didn’t know how his illness would affect him on the road. Come to think about it, I still didn’t get his real name, either!
Well, you’ll all be the first to know how it went. But that will be awhile down the road…I still can’t figure out how he can spin a pool ball on his finger. I have to practice spinning that ball.