about the author

Andrew Farkas is the author of a novel, The Big Red Herring (Kernpunkt Press 2019), and two collections of short fiction: Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press, 2009) and Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books, 2019). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He is a fiction editor for The Rupture and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Pool Hall Legend  

Andrew Farkas

See the pool hall.

Now, I’m not good at any billiards game, but I’ve spent enough time playing that I have my own image of one. It’s a skeezy place with filthy, rutted wooden floors; row upon row of tables covered in beat-to-shit green baize, fragments of blue chalk cubes, shards of talcum powder towers; hooded lamps hanging low over the tables that create deep shadows, rather than help you see; racks of sticks that’ve almost become scythes; so much smoke you think the walls might ask you to run and grab them a carton of Lucky Strikes; ceiling fans that stir the atmosphere, instead of cooling it; a bar that serves whiskey, beer, and Boilermakers (a combination of whiskey and beer); a blackened, tin ceiling; and a clientele made up of bad dudes with scraggly beards wearing boots, blue jeans, flannel shirts or T-shirts, holding their own cues, sucking on cigarettes, eyeing any newcomer suspiciously.

But honestly, and you might be thinking this already, my image doesn’t hold up. I mean, I’ve scratched on the eight ball in university halls, fluorescent lights buzzing from drop-ceilings overhead, surrounded by students who mostly don’t know how to play (having grown up with video games); I’ve missed simple shots in yuppie hangouts, everything made to look plush and expensive: red felt, polished wood, faux-Tiffany lamps, pristine billiards bridges, framed pictures of gentlemen at snooker on the walls; I’ve miscued in entertainment complex rooms overrun by children rambunctiously cavorting between the lunar bowling alley, arcade, ping pong, Skee-Ball, and animatronic animal sectors; I’ve been six-packed (though no six-pack changed hands) in the 1990s update of the poolroom where there’s no alcohol, no smoking, no gambling, no nothing but straight pool (they were trying to make Vegas family-friendly back then too); and I’ve sent balls over the rails and onto the floor in dive bars where the tables are shoved so far off in the corner you need a special tiny stick to shoot most of the shots.

And yet, if someone says “pool hall,” even after taking a billiards course at Kent State (it fulfilled the phys ed requirement), where I learned the rules to an impressive number of cue sports I never played, where I was taught terminology I had no plans of remembering (especially after the instructor told us part of the table was called the Kitchen, which sounded like bullshit), where I otherwise played countless games of Cutthroat to pass the time, yes, even after all of this, if someone says “pool hall,” still only one image enters my mind and only one story.

The image you already have.

Here’s the story (with some of the minor variants and guidelines on how to tell it):

You should be in the general vicinity of a billiard hall when you begin, so you can point to it as the impetus for the telling. You should say that a buddy of yours used to be a really good pool player, that he grew up with a table in the [basement or rec room], that you lost to him every single time the two of you played [maybe you beat him once, such a momentous occasion you can recall everything about that day even now]. You absolutely need to make clear that your buddy is a fine, upstanding member of the community [married, has kids, volunteers, goes to PTA meetings, a suburban saint] to set him off from the coming antagonist. “But one day” (it’s very important to say it just like this, so we know the turn is here), your buddy decided he didn’t want to play at home, so he went to a pool hall. Under no circumstances should you describe the pool hall. Let the listener fill in the details. With that “But one day” your auditor has already given the story such a terrifying setting, you could never top it anyway. Then pull a feint, “At first, everything was fine.” Having found a good group, your buddy was shooting stick, he was having fun, he was winning (of course). Accentuate the fact that he was not winning money, however. The game has always been more than enough for him. Gambling actually ruins it. At some point, though, the romp had to end, so the group left, meaning your buddy was now by himself. And that’s when he was approached by the stranger. You should not describe the stranger. The stranger is a shape-shifter, so no description would do him [it] justice. Do not tell your listener the stranger is a shape-shifter, though. Your listener will naturally make him a shape-shifter. Starting out, then, the stranger should seem pathetic. He’s got no one to hang out with, asks your buddy if he would stay for just one more, and although it really was time to go, your buddy decided to play. Depending on how you want to tell this tale, when they start the game, it should be immediately apparent that the stranger is bad, though how bad is up to you. Maybe he misses the rack three consecutive times on the break, maybe he shoots at any old ball after the sides have already been determined, maybe he thinks the 8 is a solid like the 1-7. On the other hand, it could be that he’s just unskilled. Whatever you decide, the fact of the matter is your buddy stomped him, plain and simple. Afterward, the stranger may say any number of things: “I’m not usually this awful,” or, “Wow! You’re so good! Are you a professional?” or, “Did I win or did you win? I really don’t know.” But then comes the kicker, the line repeated, either verbally or mentally when, I’ll bet, anyone at all thinks of pool halls:

“Do you want to play for money?”

Right here is the most important part in the story: a cut. You don’t talk about your buddy wrestling with the ethical, or even moral dilemma of potentially taking a sucker’s cash. You don’t talk about your buddy accepting with a wolfish grin, or even with a resigned shrug, while mumbling the cliché about a fool and his money. You absolutely leave out any in-game details. Instead, you jump right to the ruinous end where your buddy dropped [insert outrageous amount here]; or he was cleaned out; or he not only lost what he had on him, he forked over the car, house, wife, maybe even the children, but after all that he’s still in debt to the hustler, doubtful it’ll ever be paid off, forced to run jobs for him the like of which you don’t want to hear about, and if I haven’t told you my buddy’s name thus far, it’s because, between you and me, I don’t want to be associated with the bastard anymore.

I argue, some version of this urban legend has been passed around since the first pool hall opened.

But there are problems with it. First, sure, it seems likely, back before kids grew up playing video games in the basement instead of pool, that there were hustlers. How did they operate? These con men played on hubris. They knew you already thought you were good, figured you had an overinflated sense of how good because of all that time spent practicing in your basement or in your friend’s rec room. After watching your opponent shoot so poorly, then, you were absolutely ready to plunk your money down, or so the hustler hoped. But those days are long over. So the marks don’t exist anymore. As for the hustlers, again, I’ve shot in lots of different places over the course of twenty-five years, and yet there was only one time I ever thought someone was trying to bilk me. Honestly, even on that occasion I wasn’t sure. In the end, I told the would-be swindler I don’t play for money. And that was that. Consequently it seems we can say, by all evidence, that the marks are all gone and the hustlers have died out, so this cautionary tale continues on even after its usefulness is long over, a cultural-bound syndrome that refuses to vanish.

Another problem with the urban legend, though—it really seems to have a simple solution, one I’ve already explained (just don’t play for money). But this is why the cut is so important to the story. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to be a cautionary tale about avoiding hustlers. Instead, it seems to be a cautionary tale about going into pool halls in the first place. Inside the pool hall, any pool hall, according to this parable, the very nature of reality changes. It’s bent, contorted, twisted beyond belief. And if you make the grave error of going inside one, you only have yourself to blame. And your punishment: you might lose some money, you might lose everything, you might even be damned. But nobody cares. Since it’s all your fault.

Thanks to this story, I argue, we can’t see pool halls. That’s why the image that always comes to mind for me (and likely for you too) is one I’ve never actually witnessed. Because whatever we see on the inside couldn’t possibly be real. Whatever our eyes take in, we know, is the purest form of mendacity. The truth of the place is buried under some kind of insidious sorcery, obfuscated by a virtual reality only a mad scientist could’ve invented. Without the use of our senses, we must intuit the interior of any pool hall. And that intuition, if working correctly, always lets us know to be on guard, no matter what the place happens to look like.

Though perhaps you disagree. Sure, you know the hustler story, but all that’s over. Pool halls these days aren’t anything special. They’re just places where people play cue sports. Only, I’m now reminded of the Clive Barker-inspired film Candyman (1992). Helen, the protagonist, is studying graffiti, when she stumbles on a piece that refers to an urban legend which is dying out. Candyman, the spirit of the legend, near the end, contacts Helen and gives her an option. She can go about her life as per normal, or she can join Candyman in immortality by letting him kill her physical being. How would succumbing to this ghost allow her to live forever? Because her death would rejuvenate the legend of Candyman, and the two would continue on and on as more people believed in the story.

Now, you are faced with a similar situation. You can let things go the way they’re going, you can let the mystique of pool halls die and be replaced by banality, or...you could play me. You know I’m oh so very bad. I’ll even show you when you get here. All you have to do is come inside. That will be the moment of truth. Standing at the door. Deciding whether you’ll go in. And if you do come inside, when the stakes are raised, after I ask, “Do you want to play for money?” you will find, having passed through the cut, that you must’ve said yes, because pool halls will have regained their haunting allure, and the characters in the cautionary tale will now have names, our names, and whereas the end of the story will show you ruined, you will not be ruined, because, thanks to this legend, you will join me in immortality in the pool hall.

I’ll break.

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