Here is a story that I wrote. I am posting it for all the men and women that have been part of our Armed Services as well as those that have dedicated their lives to help them cope when they return home.
By Laura B. Williams
Behind me I heard the other customers talking and laughing, the buzz punctuated by the occasional crack of a rack of balls being scattered across felt. I reached for my beer that had begun to warm as I waited. My other hand rested on the leather case beside me.
“Hey Reggie. You playin’?” said a voice coming from over my right shoulder. I turned around and saw that it was Mickie, a young kid with promise on the pool table but he lost all his shine once he stepped away. “I’m busy Mick, catch you another time.” Mickie nodded his head and turned back to the football game on the big screen.
The door cracked sending a shaft of smoky dim light across the floor guiding the new guest through. I could see him pause to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim pool room. He looked slowly around and I raised my hand. He walked with a rolling gate over to my table, some may think that he had developed his own swag but I knew it was caused by two broken legs in Cincinnati in ’72 in the parking lot of a pool room much like this one. The price for a winning hustle. Just like the metal plate on the left side of my head that gives me headaches when the temperature drops, I can thank a ball-banger with an attitude and a cheap house cue for that one.
“Joe. You’re late.” I say to him as he slowly eases down into a chair. “Yep.” Joe isn’t much of a conversationalist and honestly I am not sure if it’s because he is dense, thoughtful or just plain grouchy. The waitress stops by and Joe orders a coke. I don’t think I have ever seen Joe drink anything with alcohol in all the years I have known him.
“I’ll get a table. There’s a corner one open.” A couple of minutes later I came back to the table with a rack of shiny balls. One of the funny things about pool rooms is that the carpet may be filthy and ragged, and the place may look like its falling apart which it probably is but the pool tables will have decent felt that has brushed and cleaned and the balls will usually have been run though a ball cleaner. For the promise of free pool there are usually a couple of table rats that will take care of the upkeep of all the equipment.
Dust danced under the table light as I set the rack down and reached over to open my cue case. Out came my two most prized possessions. My Josh cue that had seen me through twenty plus years and a break cue that I would swear had a power all its own. I screwed the cues together and wiped them down and then gently leaned them next to a chair. “It’s my rack isn’t it?” I asked Joe. “Yep, you lost last time, as I remember it.” Joe reached down in his case and pulled out a black and white photo and propped it against the ashtray on the rail. The picture was of three guys leaning against a pool table in an army tent. It was me, Joe and Frank Miller. Three young guys smiling and laughing like all they had to worry about was their next shot not being shot at. Joe and I were both eighteen and Frank was the old man at twenty. That was in 1962, fifty years ago. Somehow we all made it home even though Joe left more of himself back in the paddies.
I racked, something that you would think requires no thought in nine-ball but actually a good rack can decide the game. Once I made sure that the rack was nice and tight I picked up my half glass of now warm beer and raised it. “To Frank the Tank, who’s bustin’ someone’s balls somewhere.” Joe and I touched glasses.
Joe stepped over to the table stretching out and as he followed through with a loud crack I was taken back in time for a moment. Joe and I had been drafted right out of high school but Frank had dropped out of college and volunteered. I think he did it to piss off his old man he said it was out of guilt from watching some of his friends headed over and hearing that they weren’t coming back. The truth is probably somewhere in between. We were just three scared, dumb kids from Ohio who had been sent into a jungle to fight the good fight. That’s what we told ourselves for a while. Until mind-numbing exhaustion, rotten feet and staggering sense of futility crept in with fear and desperation that changed us forever, each in our own way.
I watched Joe cleanly pocket the one, two and three moving the cue ball around the table to make sure that he had position for the next. I felt a small amount of hope rise as I noticed he had a difficult kick shot to make the four but he made it and there was the set up for the five. It was an easy run to get out of this rack now, for Joe anyways. Once the nine-ball dropped I stepped up and racked again. Frank had always been the best player of the three of us. His dad had an amazing solid, beautiful Brunswick in a billiard room in that big old house. Frank would hide out in the billiard room and practice as often as he could so that when his Dad would come home from the country club or some meeting drunk and irritable and call him down from his bedroom half asleep he would maybe avoid the beating he knew was coming if he missed a shot. It took a long time for Frank to realize that no matter how well he played that beating was coming. Frank’s dad resented him. Frank was smarter than his old man and his dad knew it. Marrying into money was the end of his dad’s self-esteem. What looked like a great gig from the outside turned out to be a life of failure and disappointment shared with a woman who hated the sight of him. All made worse by the birth of his golden boy. So Frank’s dad became meaner and meaner and took his pain out on his kid as many parents do.
Half way through the second rack Joe got a bit too much of the four and ended up after a two rail bank attempt unable to reach the five. I held the cue ball, assessed the table and planned my run. It was only a couple of minutes before Joe was racking. It felt good. I hadn’t played in a couple of months. At almost seventy it was getting harder to see and it had become necessary for me to adjust my leaves so that I had shorter spans between balls or else I just couldn’t see the cuts. Back in the day we used to be able to play for hours, sometimes days but not now.
“How’s Mel?” Joe asked. Mel, is my wife. The love of my life and the most patient woman I have ever known. She had to be to put up with me and our two boys. I met her in a poolroom in Chicago. She was waiting on tables but I could tell that that’s all she was doing there, waiting. I was there for a weekend tournament which I won. I used the cash I had earned form the tournament and side bets and holed up in a room in a small hotel and there I stayed for three weeks, until I had convinced my future wife that we belonged together. I’m not sure if she was ever truly convinced but it was enough to get her out of there and get a ring on her finger. Once we were back in Ohio we stayed with my parents and I went to work on my dad’s construction sites and she worked in the office with Mom. I kind of forgot about pool for a couple of years until Charlie was born and money got tight. A couple of nights hustling usually helped make up the difference between the bills and our pay checks. It was a the night that I ran into some ball-banger out of Wisconsin who had more money than sense that got me five grand to put down on the three bedroom house that we still have today.
“She’s been better, I guess. She doesn’t even know who I am most days. After all these years that may be a blessing” I said sarcastically. Mel now lived at the Rolling Hills Retirement Home. Actually she wasn’t living, she was back to waiting.
“Don’t know how you ended up with a class act like that.” Joe said as he always said when my wife’s name came up.
“Me either. Are you going to rack or sit around running your mouth?” I laughed to break the mood. Considering that Joe was the least conversational of all my friends that was far from the truth. Life weighed heavy on Joe and in the past years it became even more so. Joe stayed on the road hustling thought the Eastern half of the US after we returned from Vietnam. He never married or held onto a woman for long. He was a great shot but sometimes he allowed himdelf to be played. There are times when the balls can’t seem to break wrong for you and your pockets are full and that is when you should quit while ahead but not Joe. It may seem at first glance that Joe is just one of those quiet guys that can shoot a good stick but in reality he has an ego that has gotten in his way more often than not. Most of the time he doesn’t know when to quit and then he’ll go home broke. Since his cancer he doesn’t play as much and lives in a little trailer on Social Security and the bit of winnings he picks up in small local tournaments when needed. Of course, he doesn’t play his real game in these tournaments. He plays just enough to place in the money because if he always wins he’ll burn out the field.
We played a few more racks. Joe was ahead. “Have you seen him?” I asked. “Nope.” Joe replies, wearily. You see, Joe and I believe in ghosts. We believe because we know one, our buddy Frank. You don’t have to be dead to be a ghost. You just need to be invisible and lost in a place that none of us can visit. You see, Joe came home and went away at the same time. At first when he came home we thought maybe he would be OK. He married his childhood sweetheart, Gail six months after he unpacked his duffle bag and eight months later they had a beautiful little girl, Emily. He worked at the big Ford dealership just outside of town and everything seemed alright. Frank, Joe and I met every Thursday to shoot pool. Most of the time Joe and I racked as Frank won all our money. After that first year Frank started drinking too much on our pool nights and soon he was picking fights with anyone over anything, including me and Joe. Then he stopped showing up. We heard from around town that his marriage was on the rocks and he was having financial troubles. We knew he was headed down into the rabbit’s hole and we tried to throw him a rope several times but he couldn’t seem to hold on. Gail died when Emily was 10 years old and she was sent to live with Gail’s parents. That was when Frank quit. He quit being Frank and disappeared. We see him around sometimes, wandering. He doesn’t really know us anymore, he’s dirty, scary and out of his mind. It seems to me and Joe that between his father’s hatred of him, his time in the field in Nam and the struggle to try to fit in when he got home that he imploded.
The only person he sees with any regularity is his daughter Emily. He’ll show up at her house at any hour of the day and she’ll feed him and let him shower and make sure he is somewhat alright. I think her kids are a little scared of the filthy, smelly old man that their mom makes them call “Grampa”.
Each year Joe and I meet and we play for a little bit of money which we take over to Emily to help take care of Frank. That’s what friends do.
“It’s getting late.” Joe says several racks later, putting the now dusty balls back in their rack. I reach in my wallet and take out some bills and lay then next to Joe’s case. “I can go with you if you want.” I offer. “Nah, I got it. You went over last year. I heard he’s been sick and I want to see how he’s doing.” Joe picked up the money and the photograph.
“See ya’ later, Joe.” I walked out into the cold early morning with my cue case slung over my shoulder. My mind wandering through all those old memories good and bad that made up my life.
If I had looked in the shadows of the pool hall I would have seen an old man watching me. Crouched under a ragged coat with his face half hidden by a floppy, beat up hat, was the ghost of Frank the Tank.
Photo Credits for montage
The view from inside Marine helicopter Yankee Papa 13, Vietnam, March 1965. (Larry Burrows—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)