Sure, there were other pool halls, smoke-filled joints with low lights and clacking balls, and quiet curses over money shifting from hand to hand. And though Pete said they were all the same, I felt something special about ours.
Maybe it was just the fact I blew my weekly allowance here and not other places, feeding the familiar sharks rather than strangers. But it felt like home. Even the old man nodded when we came in, though he didn't like the girls who peeped in through the dusty windows to get a look at Pete, his slim face spitting open as he winked and smiled and took his shot. He rarely missed and never lost a cent to the sharks.
The old man didn't like Pete much. It was mostly because of the girls, though sometimes I got the feeling, he didn't trust Pete, always staring out at us from the cage as if we were going to walk off with a cue ball or pool stick, as if we could get anything for either if we did. The stuff was so old here, it often fell apart in our hands, splinters and dust.
But the old man was most always worried about a fight, and wouldn't let the girls in, saying they were the chief cause. He didn't mind the gambling because money was just money and people could lose that easier than they could a girl. I didn't always get the logic in it, but there were less fights here than other places so maybe the old man had a point.
Yet he couldn't stop them from looking in the window, their giggling faces like monkeys, wiggling their fingers at us, asking us-- or I should say Pete-- to come out and play.
He did. But only after he'd gotten his share of games or the sharks got sick of losing money to him.
Even when there was a fight, it didn't last long. No one messed with the old man once he came around from behind the counter. We all knew where he'd been and who he'd been with, and how he still had some of those connections downtown if he needed them. He rarely did. He might have looked frail, and maybe a little wimpy with his wiggling white moustache. But I'd seen him knock a kid's head off once, and from what I'd heard, he'd done it more than that near the beginning.
Mostly, he just sat behind that counter of him, smoking cigarettes and giving out change, but always watching who came and where they went and what they did, watching that the money count over each game never got too high as to attract the cops.
"I run a clean place here," he once said when the cops came looking around. And he did. Though there were a few dark characters who came around sniffing for a big game or two.
The old man was sweet on money, though-- and you could see him through the window after closing, his eyes shimmering as he counted out his cash, licking his fingers over each bill, flattening it down with the palm of his hand, all the faces facing the same way.
Pete said the old man would get robbed some day. I didn't think so. There were always men around at night, sent up from downtown to watch over him. They always came just before closing, dressed in dark clothing and angry stares. And they always cleared the place, waving people out-- and everybody went when they did, except Pete.
Pete always gave them a hard time, telling them he wasn't through yet and that he'd paid his money for a full hour, and that his hour ended right on the minute the sign said the place closed.
"Don't get tough on us, kid," the men told him.
But Pete only picked up his stick and grinned, taking his shot with a real slow deliberation, then packed up his stick. It was a game, and they knew it, and more or less let him have his fun. The thing was he always went. Sure they closed the place ten minutes before they should have, but they always did, and we all knew it when he put up that last dollar for that last hour's worth of pool. It was part of the unspoken house rules by which we all played.
Who knows what got into Pete this last time, but when the men cleared the place, he didn't just take his last shot, he told them, no.
I don't think they quite understood him at first, staring across the room, waiting for him to take his last shot and go. But when he took a second shot, then a third, they got the idea all right.
"Hey, kid!" one of them said. "We told you to get out."
"I'm not through," Pete said, but not in his usual kidding voice, nor did he bother to look up from his shooting and let loose with another shot, the clack of balls emphasizing his point.
The men came over and grabbed the cue ball before it could hit the seven into the corner pocket. "The place is closed, kid," the one with the ball said.
"Put the ball back," Pete said. "I'm paid till ten."
The other man pulled out a wad of bills and flicked a single down on the green table. "Now you're not paid up for anything. Get."
"No," Pete said, flicking the bill onto the floor with the tip of his stick. "Put the ball back on the table, mister."
There was nothing calm or funny in his voice, though his eyes had an odd look to them, flicking towards the man behind the counter as if waiting for him to notice.
"Come on, Petey," I said, tugging at his sleeve. "We don't want no trouble here."
Pete didn't even look at me.
The man with the cue ball sighed. "What do you got to go making trouble for, kid. You can come back tomorrow. Take the dollar. Play the first game on me."
"Tomorrow ain't tonight," Pete said. "And I'm playing tonight."
It was his tone. There nothing left in it for argument and the two men knew it, and they looked at Pete and began to move either way around the table, with me ducking off to one side, saying with my waving hands I wasn't apart of this thing, that I was going except that this was my buddy and I couldn't just leave him standing here by himself.
"Hey!" the old man yelled from behind the counter. "What the hell is going on here?"
"We told these two to get out, Morton," one of the thugs said. "And they won't. They say they've paid up to ten and they're going to play right up to the end of the hour."
Now the old man was fair. Maybe fair to a fault. Maybe he'd never noticed the early closings before, always too intent on the pleasure he was going to get counting out the cash. But he noticed now and shook his head and told the thugs to let Pete finish his game.
It would have been better if he had slapped them in the face for the look he got, their anger turning towards the old man instead of Pete.
"Look, Morton! Don't take that attitude with us. We're down here doing you a favor, remember? But we don't want to be at it all night."
"Attitude?" the old man asked. "And what did you plan to do to the boy, beat him?"
Maybe it was some argument which had been going on for some time, but the two men looked at each other, then grumbled.
"Don't start that again, Morton. The punk's giving us guff. If we don't do something about it, we'll never get respect."
Meanwhile, as if to make their point for him, Pete bent and took another shot, using the eight ball as a cue.
"I said quit that!" one thug said and grabbed Pete's arm, twisting it up as if to break it. But the old man was quick and pushed himself between Pete and the thug.
"This ain't Chicago!" he screamed at them. "We don't do that kind of thing here any more. I run a clean place, you hear me? I don't want any body hurt."
"Fine! We'll take them outside," the man said, reaching around the old man as the second thug grabbed me.
"I told you no!" the old man said, pushing them away from us, motioning us towards the door. "Out, boys. I'll give you another game another time."
I half expected Pete to say no again, but he unscrewed his stick, slowly, slipped it into his case, then motioned me towards the door.
But we didn't go far-- just outside where the girls usually watched us from the window. Inside, we could see the old man and the thugs now shouting at each other, and with a final gesture sent them out, too-- but out permanently, out as to never clear the place again, ten minutes before the scheduled hour, and when the old man counted his money, he did so alone, night after empty night, as if he'd done something drastic to himself.
Sure, we got our free game, and maybe a few more than that-- which makes me all the more ashamed to come over one day looking for Pete, only to find the old pool hall closed up, people out front talking about how the old man had been shot to death the night before and all his money taken.
And when I went and tried to find Pete to tell him the news, I couldn't. In fact, I never saw him again, though I'm sure he's playing pool somewhere, his pockets bulging with the old man's money.