It’s after midnight, which means it’s my birthday. But the only sign of revelry here is that I drank all the available Guinness in my parents’ basement. I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just what happened while I was demonstrating — to no one in particular (actually to no one at all) — that I am the greatest billiard player in my family. Or, at least, the greatest billiard player who doesn’t have a brain tumor.
My dad was a bona fide pool shark. In the late 1960s, after he was “asked to leave” college, he was the best straight pool player in Joliet, Illinois. One time at the Chalk ’N Cue Billiard Parlor, he and his partner, Fast Eddie, were going to be the first victims of a slick duo from Chicago, who planned to hustle their way across all of Route 66. They didn’t get past their first stop. But when those city boys lost even their pool cues in the final game, my dad let ’em keep them because, “We couldn’t take their livelihood.” A small, traveling mercy from a man who loves rules.
No stories of bygone glory tonight, though. My dad is upstairs, asleep on a hospital bed provided by the Great Society. Not all the way upstairs — he may never climb those stairs again. He’s on the main floor, in a Medicare bed, propped up in front of hours of programming that lambasts government-sponsored health care.
Meanwhile down here, I’m surrounded by our days of motility. High school graduations, baseball opening days and the big splash photo from an Arkansas River rafting trip. Photos of Ireland and what was Yugoslavia, ancestral homelands of the paternal Catholic line.
The outlines of a Ping-Pong table are discernible under my Protestant mom’s memory piles. I see a photo of a girl I thought I’d marry — why did my mom keep this? — resting awkwardly next to Mom’s grandfather’s contract for steamship passage from Gothenburg, Sweden, to the United States in 1903.
The only radio station that tunes in clearly in the basement happens to be the oldies channel. It used to play Dion and Elvis, the early Elvis, the one whose sublime “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” we prayed with at a hospital bedside Mass last week. Now the station plays Sheena Easton and Rick Springfield. It sings to me how old I am. I can’t help but love it.
I give up on the papers, notebooks and photos, the ping and pong. But the pool table’s surface has always been clear of clutter. It is the most pristine item in the house. One must never lean on it, lest it lose its true roll. One must certainly never sit on it, even for the sake of a behind-the-back trick shot. Back in high school, when a young lady wanted us to lie down on it, I said no. True roll.
I still would never set a drink on a pool table. Or the piano upstairs, which was my mom’s sacred item. Our piano was in much worse shape than the pool table — poor craftsmanship, dubious temperament — but still I wouldn’t dream of resting this Guinness on it.
The rules I learned from my parents were so sensible. You can drink at the piano, but “set the bottle on the floor.” Ride your bike anywhere in the neighborhood, but “don’t cross Arapahoe Road.” Yes, you can have matches, but “if I catch you accelerating the flame with rubber cement or Aqua Net hairspray, you’re grounded.” Sure you can host your friends here after homecoming, but “if you set drinks on the pool table, the party’s over.” Who could argue with this bounded freedom?
Earlier I played piano upstairs, while my dad rested in the other room and my mom paced about, wondering who to call next and how much they need to know. I play things my dad likes: Elvis and Roy Orbison, as I’m able. I can stumble through Nat King Cole’s “The Party’s Over,” the song Dad always started to sing to his opponent about three shots before he would sink the 8-ball.
But the only music in the bench is a hymnal, the remnant of my mom’s service 50 years ago as a church organist. She did it for beer money during college, she likes to tell everyone. But her playing and singing says otherwise. Mine, too.
One of our favorites is the old Protestant hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” When I was a kid and learning to harmonize, I learned all four parts by heart. When I find myself alone in an empty church with an unlocked piano — one of the great graces of life — I play this first.
I played it today, just before I came down here to best myself at the pool table. “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.” But we’re not sure new mercies are coming tomorrow, or any morning.
A final rule about the pool table: “Don’t use the lights directly over the table without permission.” My dad has an old-timey set of four low-hanging lights with green stained-glass, octagonal shades. They’re in mint condition save a small crack — one time I pulled up too sharply from a massé. When illuminated, they undoubtedly lent gravitas to the match at hand.
But Dad was convinced — is convinced — that “they don’t make these kind of light bulbs anymore.” Thus the lights were only to be turned on for consequential games of pool: a proper 2-out-of-3 match of 8- or 9-ball. We preserved those light bulbs for more than 20 years.
All these years, I’ve never beaten the man upstairs in a 2-out-of-3. But tonight I was the best player at the table. And I turned on the lights. The party’s not over yet.
Michael Peppard is an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. His commentary on religion, politics and culture has been featured in venues such as Commonweal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.