Serious Pool

by Richard Romboy

            Fat Mike was a funny son of a bitch. Everyone in the pool hall called him “Bozo,” and I never knew if that was because of how funny he looked or acted. Mike was a little over six feet tall, in his early fifties with pencil thin arms and legs and a proudly protruding middle. I never saw him out of his uniform: a short-sleeved, collared, polyester-patterned shirt and light blue, old man jeans, greasy at the ass and knees. He had found his way to Utah from Jersey through the misadventures of Vegas. Basically, he was too broke to get home. The Greyhound driver had kicked him out in Salt Lake when he discovered Mike had taken a week old ticket out of the dumpster.
           “The first thing I said when I’s got off da bus was, ‘WHAAT THE FUCK IS IN YOU-TAH’?” he told that to me and every other pigeon he fleeced in South Salt Lake for more than twenty years. He could definitely shoot some pool, but his antics made him infamous.
Mike was a two-bit hustler in the best and worst sense of the word. He literally would play for twenty-five cents a game. He never turned down any kind of “free” money. With a job behind the counter flipping burgers and hustling for small change, he supported a pretty good lifestyle. He paid for his girlfriends while his wife paid the overhead.
Mike married a retarded girl for her social security check. He’d buy her steak and lobster once a week (with her food stamps), and lemme tell you, she was the happiest six year old on the planet. She constantly begged him to bring her to the pool hall like a little girl who wants to see where Daddy works. All the young hustlers used to snigger, but you could tell she just worshipped the ground Mike walked on.
           Mike’s girlfriends were a different story. You could tell when he was on the hunt because he’d wash his hair, about the time we all forgot he was a redhead. He tried to take nice girls out but all they’d give him was the check for dinner. Mike’s real specialty was getting call girls to give him freebies. Our poolroom was on State Street in a shitty neighborhood with a lot of cheap motels. It was old, dirty, and smoky, a perfect home for lowlifes. We always had hookers stopping in to get warm or wait for their dealers and pimps. If a girl met his standards, namely, had a heartbeat, he would give me a wink and shoot into the bathroom with the hand talc bottle. When he walked out, there would be powder all around his nostrils and maybe a little on his forehead for good measure, and then he’d deadpan. He’d walk behind the counter, get some coffee, make small talk with a couple regulars, then he’d say a casual hello to the hooker at the bar. Oh my god if you can only imagine the kind of sudden interest the streetwalker had in Mike.
           Girls weren’t the only ones he played tricks on. A lot of young guys came into the pool hall looking to make a name for themselves. We all were the best players within a couple states and had a reputation. Everybody new came in nervous. We cultivated an image of knife fights and pool hustling in our hall. In reality we were all just a bunch of jokesters under Mike’s spell. Mike would always take the first crack at them. At some point in the first hour or so of play, and only if Mike was getting beat, when his opponent wasn’t paying attention, Mike would tell the guy he had scratched (dropped the cue ball in the pocket by mistake). The guy, still on edge, expecting to get knifed in the bathroom or some shit, would go to every pocket on the table and find no cue ball. Kind of freaking out, he’d look up at Mike, maybe a little scared, or pissed even. And right there in Bozo’s front pocket would be the unmistakable bulge of a pool ball. Mike always stood a little funny; he had a way of throwing his shoulders back almost behind him with his pelvis and belly sticking straight forward. He’d exaggerate his posture just slightly and that cue ball would look like the codpiece on a medieval knight. Then he’d offer it to him with a straight face. “Ahh shit? Where the fuck’d that cue ball go, didja lose that sonafabitch?” Totally serious. Never cracking.
           He could think fast too, he had some kind of back east, big city magic. There was a really pretty girl playing pool with her boyfriend one day – she had on this tight t-shirt with some kind of writing on it that was totally distorted by her ample breasts. Mike couldn’t stop staring. Finally uncomfortable enough to say something, she asked him what was he lookin’ at. Mike hadn’t known it was that obvious and he stumbled out a little embarrassed he’d been caught: “I was just tryin’ to read your shirt,” then, only missing a beat, he stretched his arms out and said, “C’mer honey, I only read braille.”
           Mike died in 1998 – diabetes took his legs and his will to live. He stayed in a nursing home that only brought him to the pool hall once a week, and without being able to stand at the table, he died of a broken heart. He did get the last laugh though. One of his specialties was the massé shot, a terribly difficult downward stroke that causes the cue ball to curve and swerve in beautiful swoops. It is horribly destructive to pool tables if done improperly. After closing one night, all us employees were sitting around drinking Lord Calvert, the unofficial whisky of pool players. That week, we had hung framed signs all around the pool hall which all said “Massé shots not allowed.” A little sentimental, I told my companions, “You know, if Mike were here, he’d shit a fit about those signs.” And at that moment every one of the signs fell off the walls.