He was the houseman and smoked cigars thick as Baby Ruth bars, short as he was, and always wore green pants and red socks so people could laugh at him a little bit on the side. He’d pocket change while the laughter moved around The Rathole. We always knew something special was ringing in him, some other call or cause. There were times he would lend a guy a buck who had missed a great shot at billiards or One-Ball and was almost there, getting his dough back, and he never charged but a buck for a buck. He could listen as good as a bartender, talk like a barber, remember to the minute the start of each game at each table. He answered only to Smiledge, never to his Christian name, never to hey you or houseman or you over there by a newcomer. Smiledge, he’d say. Smiledge it was. It seemed to us that it was Smiledge forever. Then one day he was gone, but that’s ahead of me.
In that sometimes darker room of The Rathole, tucked below the Knights of Pythias Building, below street level of Central Street passing by into the center of town, smack close beside the railroad tracks that were just starting to get rusty, 18-wheeler trucks and time passing that roadbed by, dramas came in different shapes and different tones. Sometimes it could be a scream, like a mother who’d just stick her head in the sub-street door and yell, like a banshee promising the truant the devil end of the world, “Charlie! Charles R. Parker! You get your fanny out here this instant!” and embarrassing the kid for a month of Sundays as it would appear how long he stayed away living it down. They tried to say mothers never had any say in a pool room. Or there’d be the truant officer, acting on a tip, come looking for Nicky Haskins always skipping school, or a cop looking for whoever left his car parked at the door and the rear end halfway out into Central Street, swearing as he came down the stairs so that we could hear him before he opened the door and know who was coming because he had grown up himself in this deep hole. Once, early in his tour of duty as houseman, Smiledge hid a kid under the last bench and draped a table cover over him so the cops couldn’t find him, and all the guys knew he really was on their side from that moment on.
There was a whole lot we didn’t know about Smiledge. Secrets were private property with him, like who lost how much and who won, who was on a winning streak and who was not, who was prone to cheat a little bit or a great deal (like a leg up on the table and the rake out for a long reach at the cue ball and the sleight of hand at a ball tucked against one rail beside that thrown leg, easing it into an easier shot with a pinkie or the aft end of the cue stick), who was apt to use his mother’s grocery money for that week after he’d scoff it out of the oatmeal box or the old coffee can hiding spot (unless Smiledge gently suggested the money was not good for legal tender that day or any day soon… the one great sin he thought was a mother at the door calling out a kid who had scoffed the week’s grocery money, or worse, a father bearing down on him, chest out, face red, demands known from the first step through the door), or where or what was his own family background.
In a sense we knew beans about Smiledge… not wife, kids, or siblings.
Someone said he lived in a rooming house in the next town, near the factory district,
But no address ever came up. He did get off the bus from that town, right in front of The Rathole, which was not a regular bus stop, but a few of the drivers got to know him as a regular or had spent some growing time in The Rathole on their own. Like Ray Abercrombie who had a stiff arm bent about in one position from a haywire band saw at the icehouse, and making change on the bus with that bent arm he had to lean over the coin box, dipping the hand of that bent arm to get the coins, Ray being one of the graduates, if you will, who had spent many hours in Smiledge’s company, give or take a year or two. Ray would toot the bus horn nearing The Rathole, letting everybody know that Smiledge was due, and then he’d toot him goodbye as he drove away from dropping him off right at the front door.
What was known was Smiledge had missed only one day of work in something like thirty years. He could be coughing or gagging or looking plain putrid, but he was always there being the house man for the owner. He said on the one day off he had gone to a funeral, but gave no name; no wife, no sweetheart, no comrade or deep friend. On local wakes for known players (past or present as might be the case) he’d slip out for an evening visit at the funeral parlor, each time a willow-the-wisp visit you could count on despite the brevity. You knew, being a regular, that if you went down for the count, Smiledge would at least come by to say goodbye in that flighty and quick way of his. He never knelt though. Never looked like he prayed. Only looked like he might be remembering a good game, a great shot like a clinical masse to clinch a point or a match, a graduation of sorts. We knew he loved his pool, and in his own way, the players, us.
Some deeds made Smiledge out special in one way or another. For example, each Tuesday, payday at the local giant General Electric plant, he’d let Edward Joseph Wozniak (Edjo) sleep on a bench at the deep end of The Rathole. Edjo would rest his one good eye with that sleep while waiting on a couple of GE guys to come by with their paychecks and gently remove much of it from their separate wallets. Now and then Smiledge would gently shake Edjo awake; “Eddie,” he’d say, “294’s here,” 294 being the GE guy’s badge number, his name never known, nothing known except his insatiable desire to get some of his money back or try lifting some of Edjo’s money, which he never did. I’d swear, as would a few other guys, that Smiledge knew Edjo would start playing 294 or 376 without having a dime in his pocket, he had that much confidence in his game. Edjo was blind in one eye and needed that rest for the good eye and Smiledge once admitted that he had the right to a slight edge in all matters pool, Edjo being one of the guys who could throw a leg up on the table and move a ball hidden by his leg that 294 or 376 never saw get moved into better position. Edjo did it with body English and not cue ball English. I suspect that Smiledge thought 294 or 376 should have known better.
Backing up in all of this, there were a couple of times that spoke reams about Smiledge, what kind of stuff he was made of, or something that would only add up the pile of questions we all had about him.
You know that money and pool rooms move together, as much partners as any business or financial matter. There were times a lot of money swam around that room of four tables, most all of it at Table No. 1, the lead table, the host table, the best table in the house. When it ceased to be so it would be moved along the line and one table would be moved out. Smiledge kept No. 1 covered when it was not in use, kept it dry, kept it clean,kept it for the guys who had earned their way to that table. Its banks were lively, it was insanely level in that cellar of a room, and the leather thongs of each pocket were wiped down a number of times each day so that they shone like saddle leather. The green felt was like the grass in Eden.
None of the poorer players got to play on No. 1; they had to progress up the line until the time when Smiledge, ever the watchman and calculator and talent judge, would throw them a cue and say, “Want to hit a few?” That was graduation of a sort, a mark of acceptance. Some guys celebrated the move a little too much and would move out of favor sooner or later. Some brought their game to a higher level mastering billiards or One-Ball or bringing a clean and positive masse shot into their arsenal of shots. Once in a while you’d see Smiledge nod or get off a small grin as if he were attesting to his earlier judgment.
And some brought a lot of money into that room, passed it over that table one way or the other. Tin Horne was one of them. Tin had owned his own table at a Port of Embarkation during WW II, someplace down in Jersey, probably right outside the gate at Fort Dix through which moved thousands of guys at assignment or reassignment and many of them would-be pool sharks, guys from the big cities like Chicago and New York and Boston and way down in Houston; you know, the supposed pros. The table was in a private garage, a single table under a single bulb. Tin had bought it from another dogface who was shipping out to those affairs in Europe. Tin made a hell of a lot of money before his time to ship out came and he had to sell it off also, but for a long while some of the dough he was raking in went back to a sergeant at Fort Dix, finagling Tin’s name off replacement lists for a long time. Maybe it was a lieutenant. Or a major. He probably got shipped out himself and Tin’s time was up shortly thereafter. But also a ton of that money found its way back home into his bank account at the local bank here three doors down from The Rathole and established him as a gambler who belonged from day one on Table No. 1.
Tin was one of the elite, a crafty, cigar-smoking guy who knew both ends of the cue stick, at perfection and execution, or at trouble. He was tough as the proverbial nail, cool as a glacier when he lined up a shot, and moved so slowly around the table, from one shot to the next, that some opponents were unnerved. Part of his game plan, one might say. I can see him now, that cold gleam in his eyes, that dagger stream coming across the table
as he lined up a shot. When he shot, and not until, he’d let out that long puff of smoke directly at his opponent. Many times it worked.
Tin was playing Frankie Dykstra the day the gun came out of a pocket of Dykstra’s jacket hanging on the wall. Tin had made a great shot, an impossible shot, and was about to win the big game of the evening. The cue ball had hung perilously close to the lip of a corner pocket. One of the bystanders, a little anxious because he had bet some money on the outcome, like a whole lot of money, bumped the table so that the cue ball fell into the pocket. Tin reached for it, as if to set it back on the lip, his shot having sat there many seconds while he planned his next shot before the bettor bumped the table.
Dykstra said, his voice cutting through the layers of smoke that rode the air like pages of a book, “If you touch that ball, I’ll blow your brains out.” He had pulled a revolver or a pistol from his jacket hanging beside the cue rack. The handgun was leveled at Tin who had his hand in the pocket, his eyes on the gun, the beginning of a smile on his face. Tin must have seen what nobody else saw.
WHAM! Smiledge brought a cue stick, thick end first, down on Dykstra’s arm so hard that the gun jumped in the air and the second sound you could hear was the bone breaking in Dykstra’s arm. Some of the guys can still hear that breaking bone. “Not in my hall,” Smiledge said. “Take your shot, Tin, and somebody else get this son of a bitch out of here and down to see Doc Jacobs.” Dykstra never came back to The Rathole again; maybe he got cured of gambling by Smiledge.
One other time one of the guys who had just started dating a real good looker from two streets over, and who had just broken up with her long-time boyfriend, came into The Rathole just before closing time. It was late, the drug store down the street was long closed and the guy whispered in Smiledge’s ear. Smiledge went to the cash register, reached underneath the small countertop and came back to Table No. 1. He threw a handful of rubbers out on the table top, the only time I ever saw any debris on that green felt surface, and said, “You guys never use your heads. You never plan anything. I don’t know how the hell you ever got this far in life,” for that guy that being about 17 years at the time. The whole place went into hysterics, but lover boy reached over and began to rake in the pile of rubbers as if he had just won a huge poker pot. Smiledge said, “One rubber, Romeo, just one,” and the whole place went bananas again.
But lover boy was smiling the next day, all day.
Anyway, me and my gang were standing in line for a history of our own, him watching us come along the way, Smiledge the houseman, racking balls, collecting coin, a judge with a hundred dollar bill in the side pocket. He smoked cigars thick as cue sticks or continually ate candy bars until his teeth stuck. We saw his hair thin, his face widen, his paunch grow a bit in the green pants, and his step slow. During those growth years he’d
send us home abruptly when our eyes became hazy or midnight slipped like a footpad over the green felt on table No. 4. He did not lend us money, but let the clock work in our favor; at a nickel a game he didn’t see the eight ball eight times in the side pocket, and forgot to lock away all the nickel bags of potato chips. One night, the world suddenly topsy-turvy again, we played One-Ball-in-the-Side- Pocket past closing and Smiledge sat in a corner waving off the game costs. One day later we walked off under a September moon all the way to Korea. The night I came back, chevrons up and down, deep new wrinkles struck across my face, measureless but valid, reaching for my yesteryear, a skinny bald-headed man was racking the balls. He didn’t know my name, who was home and who wasn’t, who wasn’t coming home, why Smiledge had drifted off someplace the day after we left for the army.
We had seen it all before, when the older guys moved out, when they left us, we in our sneakers and innocence of baseball’s bright summer days, to go away from us with our big brothers, left us lonely and miserable on corners, in cold fields with all the long ball hitters gone, the Big Sticks of the neighborhood, and the Big Wood of the Majors, and we cried in dark cells of home for our brothers and bubble gum heroes, our young community of family. Oh, Dropkick’s brother not yet home from someplace in World War II, Zeke’s brother who owned the soul of every pitcher he ever caught, a shortstop the Cards owned, Spillane, I think, his name; and in that great silence out there Billy centerfield left his arm in Kwajalein debris. Oh, brotherless we had played our game, no deep outfield, no zing to pitch, no speed, no power, loveless without a big brother to show our growing. And then, not long after the Boston Braves rode that mighty crest in ‘48, our turn came, and we left our brothers on corners, in cold fields, we long ball hitters.
If Smiledge only knew how much we had grown while we were away in the Land of the Morning Calm. For sure, he would have smiled, nodded his head, agreed with his own judgment on our talents.
But they said he went off the day after we left and never came back. I don’t think I’ll ever know what happened. But I know what didn’t… he didn’t forget us, not a one.
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