Henry, black and stooped, unlocked the door with a key on a large metal ring. He had just come up in the elevator. It was nine o’clock in the morning. The door was a massive thing, a great ornate slab of oak, stained once to look like mahogany, ebony now from sixty years of smoke and dirt. He pushed the door open, shoved the door stop in place with his lame foot, and limped in.
There was no need to turn the lights on, for in the morning the three huge windows along the side wall faced the rising sun. Outside of them was much daylight, much of downtown Chicago. Henry pulled the cord that parted the heavy draperies and these gathered in grimy elegance to the edges of the windows. Outside was a panorama of gray buildings; between them, patches of a virginal blue sky. Then he opened the windows, a few inches from the bottom. Air puffed abruptly and small eddies of dust and the aftermaths of four-hour-old cigarette smoke whirled and then began to dissipate. Always by afternoon the draperies would be drawn tight, the windows shut; only in the morning was the tobaccoed air exchanged for fresh.
A poolroom in the morning is a strange place. It has stages; a daily metamorphosis, a shedding of patterned skins. Now, at 9 a.m., it could have been a large church, still, sun coming through stained windows, wrapped into itself, the great tables’ timeless and massive mahogany, their green cloths discreetly hidden by gray oilcloth covers. The fat brass spittoons were lined along both walls between the tall chairs with seats of honest and enduring leather, rump-polished to an antique gloss, and, above all, the high, arched ceiling with its four great chandeliers and its many-paned skylight—for this was the top floor of an ancient and venerable building which, squat and ugly, sat in eight-story insignificance in downtown Chicago. The huge room, with the viewers’ chairs, high-backed, grouped reverently around each of the twenty-two tables, could have been a sanctuary, a shabby cathedral.
But later, when the rack boys and the cashier came in, when the overhead fans were turned on and when Gordon, the manager, would play music on his radio, then the room would adopt the quality that is peculiar to the daytime life of those places which are only genuinely alive at night—the mid-morning quality of night clubs, of bars, and of poolrooms everywhere—the big, nearly empty room echoing the shuffling of a few feet, the occasional clinking of glass or of metal, the sounds of brooms, of wet rags, of pieces of furniture being moved around, and the half-real music that comes from radios. And, above all, the sense of the place’s not yet being alive, yet having now within it the first beginnings of the evening resurrection.
And then, in the afternoon, when the players began to come in in earnest, and the tobacco smoke and the sounds of hard, glossy balls hitting one another and the squeaking sound of chalk squares pressed against hard leather cue tips would begin, then would start the final stage of the metamorphosis ascending to the full only when, late at night, the casual players and the drunks would all be gone, leaving only the intent men and the furtive, who watched and bet, while certain others—a small, assorted coterie of men, both drably dressed, who all knew one another but seldom spoke—played quiet games of intense and brilliant pool on the tables in the back of the room. At such times this poolroom, Bennington’s, would be alive in a distinct way.
Henry took a broad broom from a closet near the door and began, limping, to sweep the floor. Before he had finished, the cashier came in, turned on his little plastic radio, and began counting out money into the cash register. The bell on the register rang out very loudly when he punched the key that opened it. A voice on the radio wished everyone a good morning.
Henry finished the floor, put the broom away, and began taking the covers from the tables, exposing the bright green baize, now dirty with streaks of blue chalk and, on tables where the salesmen and office clerks had played the night before, smeared with white talcum powder. After folding the cover from each table and placing it on a shelf in the closet, he took a brush and rubbed the wooden rails with it until they glowed with a warm brown. Then he brushed the cloth until the chalk and powder marks and dirt were gone and the green was bright.
Early in the afternoon, a tall heavy man wearing green suspenders over his sport shirt was practicing on the front table. He was smoking a cigar. This he did in a manner like that with which he practiced, thoughtfully and with restraint. A patient man, he would mouth the cigar slowly, with the even, gentle mastication of a cow, reducing the end of it by stages to whatever state of moist deformation pleased his fancy. He played his practice shot patiently, always at the same speed, always in the same pocket, and—almost always—making it fall into the pocket gently and firmly. It seemed neither to please nor displease him to make the ball; he had been shooting this shot, for practice, for twenty years.
A younger man, with a lean ascetic face, was watching him. This man was dressed, although it was summer, in a black suit. He wore a perpetually distraught expression, and often would wring his hands as if in grief, or nervously snuff his nose with his forefinger. On some afternoons, his look of anxiety would be heightened by a strained expression in his eyes and a dilation of the pupils. At such times, however, he would not snuff his nose but would, instead, occasionally giggle to himself. Those were the times when he had been lucky with the games the night before and had been able to buy cocaine. He was not a pool player himself but earned a slender living from making side bets whenever possible. He was known as the Preacher.
After some time, he spoke, snuffing his nose to quiet the voice of his monkey, the insistent whispering of his drug habit, which was beginning to whine. “Big John,” he said to the man practicing, “I got news, I think.”
The big man finished his stroking of the ball, the steady motion of his fleshy arm undisturbed by the interruption. He watched the bright three ball roll up the table, against the rail, and ease its way back down and into the corner pocket. Then he turned, looked at the Preacher, removed his cigar, contemplated it, looked back at the Preacher, and said, “You think you got news? What does that mean, you think you got news?”
Cowed by this, the Preacher seemed confused. “I heard . . . They said, last night, over at Rudolph’s house. There was this guy in the game, playing draw, and he said he just come up from Hot Springs at the races. . . .” The Preacher’s voice had become stringy. Upset by Big John, his monkey’s whine was becoming scratchy. He rubbed his forefinger under his nose, hard. “. . . he said Eddie Felson was there, in Hot Springs, and he said he was coming up here. Maybe tomorrow he’s coming, Big John.”
Big John had long since mouthed his cigar again. He removed it once more and looked at it. It was very soft. This seemed to please him, for he smiled. “Fast Eddie?” he said, raising his massive eyebrows.
“That’s what he said. He was dealing the cards out and he said, ‘I saw Fast Eddie Felson down in Hot Springs and he told me he might be coming up this way. After the races.’ ” The Preacher rubbed his nose. “He said Eddie didn’t do so good in Hot Springs.”
“I hear he’s pretty good,” Big John said.
“They say he’s the best. They say he’s got a real talent. Guys who seen him play say he’s the best there is.”
“I heard that before. I heard that before about a lot of second-rate hustlers.”
“Sure.” The Preacher transferred his attention to his ear, which he began pulling, speculatively, as if trying feebly to appear intelligent. “But everybody says he pushed over Johnny Varges out in L.A. Pushed him over flat.” Pulling the ear, and then for emphasis—for Big John was, again, impassive—“Like piss on the highway. Flat.”
“Johnny Varges could have been drunk. Did you see the game?”
“No, but . . .”
“Who did?” Suddenly Big John seemed to come to life. He jerked the cigar from his mouth and bent down toward the Preacher, staring at him hard, “You ever see anybody who ever saw Fast Eddie Felson shoot pool?”
The Preacher’s eyes darted back and forth, as if looking for a hole where he could hide. Seeing none, he said, “Well . . .”
“Well, what?” Big John kept staring at him, hard, not blinking.
“No. Hell, no.” Straightened up, Big John threw his arms out, invoking the Almighty. “And who, in the name of holy God, has ever once seen this man? I ask you. Nobody. That’s my answer. Nobody.” He turned to the table and took his three ball from the corner pocket, setting it on the green. Then he began chalking his tip, deliberately, as if he were now through with the conversation, the matter settled.
It took the Preacher a minute to regain his composure, to gather his tortured wits. Finally, he said, “But you heard Abie Feinman, what he said they was saying about Fast Eddie out West, about him and Texaco Kid and Varges and Billy Curtiss and all them others he’s took. And this guy over Rudolph’s house last night he said they don’t talk nothing else in Hot Springs these days but Fast Eddie Felson.”
“So?” Big John left his three ball, turned scornfully, took his cigar from his mouth. “So did this big man from Hot Springs see Eddie shoot pool?”
“Well, you see . . . It seems this guy he runs some kind of large con game with the races—I think maybe he plays the inside on a traveling wire game—and he says he was kind of busy with his customers. But he says . . .”
“Okay. Okay, I heard it. You told me.” Big John turned back to his shot, stroked his cue. The ball rolled, bounced, plopped in the corner pocket. He set it up again. Plop. Again.
The Preacher watched him, silently, wondering when he would miss. Big John kept shooting the three ball, up and down the table, into the pocket. Each time the ball hit the pocket the Preacher snuffed his nose. Then, finally, the ball came down the table an almost imperceptible fraction of an inch closer to the rail than normally. It caught the corner of the pocket, oscillated a moment, then became still. Big John picked up the ball, held it in his heavy right hand and glared at it, not with scorn but with disapproval—he had missed the shot many times before, in twenty years. Then he dropped it firmly into the pocket, turned back to the Preacher and said, “And who is he, this Fast Eddie? Six months ago whoever heard of Fast Eddie?”
The Preacher was startled for a moment. “How’s that?” he said.
“So everybody talks Fast Eddie. So who is he?”
The Preacher pulled at his ear. “Well . . . this guy I was telling you about says he used to hustle out on the Coast. California. Says he just come on the road, maybe two, three months ago. Never played Chicago yet.”
Big John took his cigar from his mouth, looked at it with displeasure, threw it, gently, into a brass cuspidor that was on the floor, beneath the powder holder. It hissed when it hit, and both of them watched the cuspidor for a moment as if waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, Big John turned his stare back to the Preacher. Cigar and three ball now gone, his concentration was complete. The Preacher seemed visibly to wither before its intensity.
“Thirty years ago,” Big John said, “I was a big reputation. Like Fast Eddie. I had a talent. Thirty years ago I wore hip boots and lived in Columbus, Ohio, and rode to the poolroom in a taxi—a taxicab—and I played the boys who came in from the factories and I played the little big-time boys from the sticks and, by God, I smoked twenty-five cent cigars. And, by God, I came to Chicago.” He stopped for breath a moment, but did not lessen the intensity of his stare. “I came to this great big goddamned city and I was a big reputation. They whispered about me the first time I ever set foot in this poolroom and they put the finger on me for Big John from Columbus and they steered me to old Bennington himself, the man whose name was right on the sign outside the door of this godforsaken poolroom just like it is now except it was on wood and not on neon. And I was hot, good Lord, I was a red-hot pool player from Columbus, Ohio, a big man from out of town. And you know what happened to me when I played Bennington, the man himself, on table number three,” he pointed at it, a sturdy, enduring mahogany pool table, “that table right there, for twenty dollars a game? Do you know what happened?”
The Preacher shifted his weight uneasily. “Well. Maybe I do. I think so. . . .”
Big John threw his hands in the air. He was like a colossus. “You think so. Good Lord, man, don’t you know nothing?”
Somehow, the Preacher allowed himself to show a bit of resentment in the center of all the fury that was being focused on him. “Okay,” he said, “you lost. I guess he beat you.”
Big John seemed to approve of this. He brought his tremendous hands back down, placed them firmly on his hips and leaned forward. “Preacher,” he said, softly, “I got my big fat ass beat. Just beat right off.”
He remained silent for a minute. The Preacher looked at the floor. Then Big John went back to the table, picked the three ball from the pocket, and held it in his hand, speculatively.
Finally, the Preacher looked up and said, “But you’re still a hustler. Hell, you’re one of the best in town, Big John. And, besides, that don’t mean Fast Eddie . . .”
“The hell it don’t. Since I walked in that door over there thirty years ago I never heard nothing but talk about big men coming in from out of town. I’ve had big boys come in from Hot Springs and Atlantic City and take me for my whole pocket. But I never was a top hustler and never will be. And they don’t—they don’t never—come in from Mississippi or Texas or California and play heads up with a top Chicago hustler and walk out with more on the hip than they walked in with. It don’t happen. It don’t never happen.”
Copyright © 2022 by Walter Tevis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.