I knew the second version of my dad–the older version, the one that made the sign of the cross when we drove past a catholic church, never was late getting home for dinner, had only one beer at a bar, and who was the first to go to bed at night so he could rise early to start the house–to make the coffee, let out the dog, and wake the children.
But there was the other version that I only saw in glimpses–the version that friends he had had earlier in his life might make reference to–friends who would start a story with “Do you remember, Larry, when . . .” but whose stories he would stop with a small shake of his head.
But if the stories of old friends never went far enough to give me access to the earlier version of my father, games did. Even playing catch on Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk that ran by the front of our house brought out a more playful, edgier side of him, like baseball drew back a curtain from a deeper, earlier personality.
But if he was younger with a baseball in his hand, he was almost a stranger to me when we went downtown to Schneider’s Pool Hall, a long room with a single window which seemed unable to admit light, as if the only illumination necessary were the single bulbs that hung over each of the three pool tables and, deeper into the room, over the half dozen card tables where older men played euchre.
The pool tables were the province of high school boys who at a certain point came like a rite of passage, similar to smoking our first cigarettes and drinking our first beers. I hadn’t come to the pool hall as early as most and then was further delayed because I was senstive to having fallen behind whatever skills my friends had learned with a pool cue; but the day after my father overheard one of my friends riding me about not playing pool, Dad pulled the car to the curb as we were driving down Main Street, stopping in front of Schneider’s. “Let’s play a game of pool,” he said.
I thought he would be as alien to the pool hall as I was, but Schneider turned to us and smiled at Dad, and the men at the card tables left their games to come and greet Dad, and when he pulled a pool cue from the rack along the wall, he looked like a conductor raising a wand into the air.
Dad racked the balls with a flourish and circled the table with an ease that I had never seen when he gardened during the summer or carpentered during the winter. There was a practiced comfort to his movements around the table, and when Schneider brought him a glass of coke from the fountain counter, the pool-hall owner winked and glanced down at the glass which Dad put up high on a shelf for hats.
“I used to give ten dollars to the church,” Dad said as he chalked his cue,” if I didnt sink at least two balls on the break.” And he did sink two balls on the break and continued to show a skill as he played that suggested a youth that if not misspent, was at least poorly budgeted. And while he did stop as we played to point out to me how to better hold the cue and what angles to pay attention to, I felt that the pool hall had transported him back to a time before the responsibilities of children and job and mortgage-a time when what counted was a style, and a circle of friends, and a skill at games.