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You make a pool hall the same way you make a schoolhouse. First you lay the planks you're going to walk on. Then you lay out two longitudinal logs and notch them for the cross-logs. And so forth, making allowances for a front door, a back door, and windows on all but the north side. You want a door big enough to accommodate a full-sized pool table. Then you saw yourself shingles for the roof. Once it's constructed, there's not much difference what goes on inside. In the schoolhouse you learn the three Rs and how you're supposed to behave in good company. In the pool hall you learn the geometry of angles in a hands-on way, learn to read the lie of the table, learn to chalk up a won game, and you learn not to interact with your peers, similarly piped out of the schoolhouse by a game. Like James Atwood Gray, who had no peer at mumblety-peg and was at least a cut above anyone in Ossage, Kansas, at pool in 1933.
In school James Atwood Gray was average in every way except his mouth, which ultimately got him expelled. He felt sorry for the sine, the cosine, the tangent-the suffocating compatibility of three peas in a mathematical pod, their every function predictable or provable, the perfectly wrapped present, the perfectly made bed, no corner untucked, and inside was everything that could be predicated of regular shapes, their mouths sewed shut by those Three Fates, and revealed by Mrs. Pearly, his geometry teacher. Unable to fathom any of the nebulous world in which Euclid worked his fabulous propositions, James Atwood became the Clarence Darrow of the merely numerate, docked for their insufficient or shabby proofs. Ultimately, it was his defense of his sweetheart Hanna Dunwoody that got him expelled. "So what if the 'e' done gallivanted from Hanna's 'sin_,'" he announced to Mrs. Pearly. It was obvious to James Atwood that Hanna was being docked for the axiomaticity of her chest. "You're just jealous cuz her tits are bigger than yers."
"You open your mouth again, James Atwood, and I'll kick you upside the head."
"You're as flat as Kansas. That's why you teach plane geometry, ain't it?"
What James Atwood learned instead was patience. He learned to wait his turn, playing mumblety-peg by himself while some stranger beat regulars Malachy Grimes and Spottswood Love out of their stakes. His thumb grew callous where the awl-point of his jackknife began its series of flips before striking the dirt or a pine board. He learned to let a stranger challenge, coax, blandish, even spot him before folding up the jackknife and picking up a cue stick. He learned not to lose the wet-behind-the-ears look, the aw-shucks voice, augmented by a naturally slow, mono-tone delivery. But every hustler has a run of bad luck. James Atwood Gray's came on an early December night. After two days of snow a warm front moved in, alternating the snow with freezing rain. Not many folks ventured out. At the pool hall that went by his first name, Eddie Moss opened cans of pork and beans and heated them in a battered, dented tin pan for the hungry. Duane Brown stopped in twice, on his rounds of saloons. Once to see what was going on, and once because he mistook the pool hall for a tavern. Each time that he left, he had to walk up the street to find his horse-pulled wagon, because his horse was tired of being beaten and just took off. When Duane's grandfather's slaves ran off, the old man would whip them with a cat-o'-nine-tails, then rub salt and red pepper into the wounds. The horse's delinquency was punished in equally cruel but less imaginative ways.
Duane was nearly hit by a toboggan sliding down the small hill that terminated at Eddie's Pool Hall because he was too drunk to hear the warnings while listening to the peculiar music that played between his ears, a jumble of ballads he'd heard at the tavern he'd just left, adjusted to the tempo of the freezing rain pelting his face, never once thinking about mortality, which stalked him as he fumbled for the right lyrics, the right notes, to get it all right just once.
He stumbled into Eddie's and shook his long, tangled, unkempt hair like a dog, which caused him to lose his balance and have to sidestep to regain it. He was thinking that the kids on the toboggan were, albeit sober, more out of control than he, that they had no cause to curse him as they flew past, that he might see fit to roust the snot-noses from the toboggan for one final joyride.
Duane warmed his hands over the stove and inhaled the aroma of pork and beans burned to the bottom of the long-handled tin pan whose bottom was out-of-flat and that spun and tipped at the slightest touch, which Duane too provided. He picked up the noisy pan and set it back on the stove.
"Jesus, Duane, get a haircut. Your head looks like a patch of tumbleweed and cockleburs." The stranger sized up Duane and told himself to forget it. James Atwood didn't look much more promising, but a hustler is a variation of suitor-the hustler has to ask.
"How 'bout you, kid? Want a game?"
James Atwood didn't need to do much to make himself look like a mark. He was in that respect a natural. His straw-like hair formed an indomitable cowlick. He looked even younger than his eighteen years, with deep-set blue eyes and a slight outward bend to the nose. The curve was a perfect complement, a miniature mirror image, to the hunch of his back as he leaned against a pool table.
"Mumblety-peg?" James Atwood responded. He had an indeterminate mien that could be taken for a scowl or a smile at any one time. Speaking with his mouth half-closed only accentuated the ambiguity.
The stranger laughed. "Pool, son. Name your game."
"Ain't much of a pool player."
"Eight-ball, for a dollar. I'll spot you three balls."
"Make it four."
"You hustling me?"
"Go play by yourself."
"Okay. Four balls."
James Atwood broke and sank a striped ball. Duane took advantage of the distraction, sticking his finger in a half-full can of pork and beans, then licking it.
"Duane, get your finger out of those beans. And get your mangy ass out of here. You're falling-down drunk."
The still life that presented itself to the five other men in Eddie's Pool Hall might be entitled Coitus Interruptus with Finger and Beans. The offending finger remained involuntarily erect, the brown-caked digit a black sheep to the closed fist, as if Duane felt obliged to air his dirty laundry. The small token of guilt, in Duane's mind, did not warrant expulsion. But Duane was too potted to argue. He turned, exited, and missed James Atwood's last two games of pool in Kansas. He won the first, thrown by the hustler, who skulked and ordered a beer.
"Remind me of the name of this town."
"I didn't ask the state. I know that."
"Betcha don't know who's from here."
"Ulysses S. Grant?"
"Nope. Pepper Martin. He wasn't 'Pepper' then. Just Johnny. Pepper's better." Martin grew up in Oklahoma, but since he was known as the wild horse of the Osage, James Atwood claimed him for a hometown neighbor. It gave Osage, Kansas, some panache, and truth never stampeded the wide open plains of James Atwood's consciousness.
The stranger sat onstool, put a foot on a rung, and slugged down his beer. "Pepper Martin ain't nothin'. What did he hit, .300?"
".316. Made the National League All-Star team. He was the Associated Press athlete of the year in '31."
The stranger scoffed. "Now, you take Gehringer. There's a hitter. Every ball, he knows exactly where it's going, like Willie Keeler. I figure I'm the Charlie Gehringer of pool. Make my living with a suitcase and a stick."
"You a Tiger fan?"
"We're St. Louis here. Everybody's for the Cardinals."
"'Cuz of Pepper Martin."
"Yup. Like the way he plays, too. Leo Durocher's quite a pool player, they say. Better than anyone the Tigers got."
"You think you could take Durocher?"
"At wrasslin', no problem."
At 5'7", James Atwood was about Durocher's height, but he was built more like Pepper Martin. Not as big as Pepper in the chest, but his arms were well developed.
The stranger looked at Malachy Grimes. "Where'd you get this sass-ass?"
Malachy lit up a cigarette and didn't look at the stranger, who smiled at James Atwood. "At pool, knucklehead. That's what we're talking about."
"Pool? Heck, no. I need a four-ball spot and luck to beat a small-time slicker like you."
Eddie Moss didn't like the tone of the conversation, and he was familiar with James Atwood's temper. He changed the subject. "Dizzy Dean's holding out again. Did you hear?"
"Yeah," said the stranger, laughing. "About a month ago. I guess news travels slow in Kansas."
"You don't like Kansas much, do you?"
"What I see, all you got is corn and snow."
"Got Kansas City. Got a Negro team there, the Monarchs. They'd kick the ass of your Tigers." The stranger laughed derisively.
"I seen 'em do it," said Spottswood Love. "Those black guys beat a bunch of Tigers, barnstorming down in Texas in the winter. Charlie Gehringer put that team together, so you know it was good. Beat the House of David team, too."
"I've heard those Negroes beat Dizzy Dean's team, too," said Malachy Grimes. "Got a guy named Paige that throws a ball out of hell. Guys say you can't see it. You know what Paige and Dean make for one of those barnstorming games? Five hundred dollars. And that sonofabitch Dean is still holding out."
James Atwood shook his head. "Five hundred clams for just playing. I don't understand it. You get all that money for playing. You don't work a lick. Then you ask for more. Soon as I get a proper stake together I'm going to St. Louis and have a talk with Dizzy Dean. Talk some sense into him."
"You're going to St. Louis to talk sense into Dizzy Dean?" The stranger laughed.
"Don't pay no attention to what he says. He's a megalomaniac," said Spottswood. "That's what they called him at the high school, when they kicked him out. Got a mouth, too."
"You know what a megalomaniac is?" asked Malachy.
The stranger got up and picked up his cue. He threw a few balls on the table and began to practice. "Don't reckon I do. Megalo-what?"
"Is that what's on his face? Or did someone play mumblety-peg on it?"
"I got some blemishes, I admit. They'll disappear in the course of time."
"See what I mean?"
James Atwood grew self-conscious. He smoothed down the hair that was the color and texture of straw, hair that was to "coiffure" what the "Gashouse Gang" was to baseball.
The stranger imitated James Atwood patting down his hair. "What's that roosting on your head, boy?"
James Atwood resented being called "boy" by someone just four or five years older. "Why don't we make this game fifty dollars? You give me a two-ball spot."
"You got fifty dollars?"
James Atwood pulled an indeterminate wad of bills from his pocket, then shoved it back in. "Satisfied?"
"Rack 'em up."
Inside, James Atwood was grinning. The hustle couldn't have gone better. The would-be hustler thought he'd gotten his goat, to where taking the hustler's money was his only way to save face. He could beat the man three out of five, he figured, straight up. And now he had a two-ball spot. Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe the hustler was holding something back. Or maybe all the skill in the world doesn't matter when your opponent hits a streak of good luck, or you hit a streak of bad.
Excerpted from All The Stars Came Out That Night by Kevin King
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