Who is He?
By Andrew Monstis
Lately I’d been thinking about Lucky, probably because of the attention over the story I wrote about him. I’d honored his request not to tell anyone where he lived or who he was; that last part was easy enough – I didn’t even know who he was. In our latest correspondence Lucky sounded like things weren’t going so well. I liked Lucky and would help him if I could. We’d shared things about our lives in letters and phone calls, and I felt we’d gotten to be pretty good friends, even like brothers. He thought it was great that I’d married a woman who loved pool, and he hoped I’d bring Sassy over sometime. With all the things we talked about it seemed funny that I only knew him as Lucky and he continued to keep his real name from me. Since it had been a while that I’d seen him face to face, I thought it was time for a visit. This little game of cover up and anonymity was going to change on this visit.
I packed enough for several days, thinking I might stay with Lucky for a while. Sassy decided to stay home and tend to the Cascade Pool league. It was a cool fall evening when I left the house. I like to drive at night, when there’s less traffic and more time for contemplation, and this night was clear with a crescent moon resting on the treetops. I probably should have written or called Lucky, but I figured the surprise would be just fine. The internet weather reports forecasted nice weather where I was headed, warmer than here at home.
Once out of town and on the quiet highway, I passed only an occasional car and the never-ending trail of nighttime long-haulers. I got to recalling stuff that happened to me during the past years — the tournaments, the games I played, the people I respect and call friends from the pool world. I especially thought about winning the VNEA International Team championship in 2009. I give a lot of credit to Lucky for my contribution to the teams winning. He taught me an incredible amount of stuff about pool and life that night I met him. I realized I had gotten fuzzy on some of those things I learned from Lucky. I needed a refresher. My own game was slumping and I couldn’t think of anyone remotely as qualified who could help me.
After a long beautiful drive through the night, I arrived in Lucky’s neck of the woods. It actually was a nice sunny morning, as the unpredictable weather people said it would be. A good breakfast was definitely on my mind, and so was some sleep. I decided to stop in at the café to call Lucky instead of going directly to the ranch to surprise him. Maybe he could come in for some breakfast with me. I pulled into the small town, stretching my neck and realizing how tired I was. A few yawns later it dawned on me that I could not find a parking spot, and that seemed highly unusual for a town this size. Cars, suv’s and pickups filled every empty space up and down the street, and there were a whole lot more people up and about than ought to be at this time of the day. My brain was awake enough to note the many different colored license plates. Why would this sparsely populated town see this much traffic, and this early in the morning? … Maybe a county fair or a big auction? Guess I’d have to do some walking.
I parked the car a couple of country blocks away from the café and hoofed it back up the road to where all the commotion was. People were milling around, talking in small groups. Some folks were just sitting back watching everybody else. Others were deep in conversation. On my way to the cafe, two guys passed me, heading the other way, and I heard one mutter, “Unbelievable.” The other looked shell-shocked, and kept trying to light his cigarette with shaking hands. Another person across the way had his hand on the some guy’s shoulder, like he was consoling him. A kid on a bench was slumped over, holding his head in his hands. His friend next to him, dog faced and teary-eyed, was counting a few bills and some change.
I continued on down the middle of the street, and overheard in another small group of men standing in a circle of smoke, “Where?” … “Atlanta…” … “Nah, Toronto” … “LA some 30 years ago…” … “That’s Roosevelt Johnson…” …“… around 35 years ago in Atlantic City.” From an old man walking in circles and talking into a cell phone a few steps away, “I been around for 50 years and I never saw this guy. No. I’m telling you, he’s a nobody. Maybe he’s from Canada …” The door to the lounge next to the café swung open, disgorging two more guys, one with a stick unscrewed in one hand and his open case in the other. He kicked viciously at the door with one polished brown loafer, and limped off after his buddy.
Well, I guessed I’d go in and check this out. Maybe Lucky was here and not at the ranch, though I doubted it. He usually put in several hours of work there before meandering into town in the afternoons. I pulled open the heavy old lounge door and walked straight into the backs of a dozen people. I had to excuse myself several times before I even got through the door. It was wall-to-wall people inside, no one budging. The murmurs and speculations were louder than the local boys playing Proud Mary in a boot-shuffling dance hall. The unmistakable sounds of ringing cell phones rose above the clamor.
As I pushed my way through the crowd, all of a sudden my consciousness was filled with only what people were saying, “I think he must be from the Northwest.” … “No, he’s from Southern California.” … “I don’t know, maybe it was someone else – I can’t really remember.” … “How the hell does he beat these guys? He has no stroke, no style.” … “I called my stake horse. He’ll be here in a couple of hours.” A cell phone rang, “Hello? I’m still here… when are you coming? ”
I still couldn’t see what was going on. I used my size to push my way to a vantage point. There was absolutely no place to sit, let alone stand. The action was all at the one lone pool table. Someone in the crowd mumbled, “He’s pretty good.” With every step I shuffled I heard a different conversation, “He’s on a roll.” … “He beat me and my horse yesterday.” … “ … Houston, Texas last year.” … “What kind of a cue is that?” … “Didn’t we see him beat Buddy Hall and Cole Dickson in Tennessee years ago?” … “That lucky bastard.”
Somebody was obviously the talk of the town. Thought Lucky had to be here watching what was going on. I was starting to get the picture. I couldn’t help but think, man, this is not what I expected. Stretching up on my toes, I could see over the crowd some older, not so elegant guy unscrewing his cue and placing it in an old, beat up case. He spread out a whole lot of bills on the table. I did a double take… it looked like Lucky! I started to head for him; then realized it wasn’t him, just a close resemblance. I scanned the crowd, but didn’t see him anywhere. To my left I noticed the pay phone. Maybe I’d give Lucky a call right now and get the scoop.
While I was pondering that, faces began to stand out … some of the best bar table players around were in this room – plenty of road players, some old-timers, some young pool prodigys and some high-roller types you see at every big tournament. Even the famous Rail Birds and Bill Cress were there. There were a lot of gold chains and expensive threads. You’d think they were going to some formal event. I could smell the sweet aroma of sweaty money. E Pluribus Unum was obviously the spoken language here — maybe more money in this room than in Fort Knocks. I wondered for a moment where the armed security was. Come to think of it, everyone was likely packing. I had never seen anything on this scale before, only minor versions, and mostly big talk, at some of the larger tournaments. Everyone was wolfing to gamble. The excitement was unmatched, anywhere, anytime. I felt like I’d stepped back in time, to the era where this stuff really happened, something I’d not seen in my lifetime.
I plugged 25 cents into the phone and dialed Lucky’s number. I had to press my hand over my other ear to hear the phone ringing faintly, and after several rings with no answer I hung up. Well, maybe he was here somewhere. I scanned the crowd again and thought that might be Lucky over by the jukebox, but was disappointed when it turned out not to be him after all. So, I thought, I’ll watch the action for a while, and if Lucky shows up we’ll have breakfast in the café. A waitress squeezed by and I managed to snag her and order a cup of coffee. I wasn’t counting on getting it.
A clothes rack stepped up to the table, very sharp, took off his leather coat and traded it for a sparkling cue from a brass-cornered oak case presented to him by a handsome but hard-eyed woman. Looked like people were chafing at the bit to play who ever this guy was who was winning. In the meantime, the winner had laid his cue on the table and picked up the money, licking a finger and counting the bills quickly. Pretty slick, I thought. Wonder who he is? He does not look familiar to me. He was wearing a fancy and very expensive custom suit and wingtip shoes. And wearing his suit jacket while he played. Clean-shaven, short hair, looking neat and very much like he just came from church or a board meeting. I didn’t recognize him as anyone I knew. I wondered if Lucky had already played him. Maybe he beat Lucky. I really needed a better look at this guy, so I made a move through the crowd to a spot nearer the end of the table. I could not think of any player who could beat the Lucky I had played that night, and I was determined to get a closer look at this guy and see what he was about.
He turned slightly, someone opened the front door, and in the streaming, smoky light beams I could finally make out his face. Now, I thought, maybe I had seen him before. But who, where? My fatigue and the smoke made my head hurt and my squinting dry eyes burn. Ah, bag this, I thought. I’m going to get something to eat and grab some sleep.
Then, in one of those frozen moments of time, when all the fragmented pieces of memory and reality come together, the realization of who this man was rushed through me. It was… I mean, it wasn’t, but it was … the same face, or at least the same under the face, I mean. Grab a hold, I thought. I couldn’t believe it, I was caught so off guard. I closed my eyes and literally shook my head to clear it. Wow! That’s Lucky! What the…?
So now what? I had come here planning to buy my friend breakfast and shoot the breeze in the peace and quiet of this quaint place, and hopefully find out how I could help him with his … problems. That picture was fading fast. The picture before me was electric with question marks and unknowns. What had happened to Lucky to bring him to this, all that he abhorred and abandoned years ago? I could only stand here, suspended in the crowd, and watch, and wait, and wonder, what’s next?