Gruff

Pool league last night.  Playing at the major pool hall in town, surrounded by some of the top players in the region.  Tensions are running high.  It’s a great pool hall, but with multiple matches going on space is tight around the set of five tables used in league play.  My typical way of handling this is  to try and get another table as quickly as possible away from the league matches.  It gives me a place to stretch out and practice without the pressure of so many talented eyes on me.  The league plays on the small, 7′ bar tables, and the other tables in the hall are larger, which I find helps me when I’m up to bat on the smaller tables.  Things don’t look so far away when you’ve been shooting on a larger table for the last 45 minutes!

It’s usually a packed house and last night was no exception – every table was occupied most of the night.  I become aware of a man looking around as though he wants to play someone.  He is clearly intoxicated.  I’m playing alone.  He comes over and announces he wants to play a game for money.  Sure, we could do that.  I don’t want to.  I don’t think he’s in condition to play, and everything about him screams sketchy to me.  He’s probably in his 60’s but he might be in his 50’s or 70’s.  I presume his life has not been an easy one.  I become aware that he’s there with another guy, maybe in his late 20’s.  It’s this guy that I’m supposed to play.  I offer a fairly low-level bet – a race to three for $5.  The first of us to win three games gets $5 from the other person.  It isn’t a lot of money, and potentially we could play six games before somebody gets the dough.  I have no idea who this guy is, but I’m willing to give it a shot.

The younger guy and I square off.  It’s pretty clear immediately that he’s either really trying to trick me into higher bets by playing terrible, or he’s just not a very good player.  The older man continues to harangue us both.  He nearly falls through the plate glass window overlooking the street outside.  He tries to half climb on the table and shoot with his cane.  He’s not happy with how his friend is playing.  So after I win the first game, the older man insists that he will play the second.  The older guy is drunk enough to enjoy spouting insults and challenges to the younger guy.  But, unlike the younger guy, he can back up some of his insults with skill.  Despite a bad leg and being truly drunk, he makes at least half of his balls on the table – far more than the younger guy.

The older guy clearly isn’t happy with the younger guy and I wonder how long they’ve been traveling together.  How long circumstances or convenience or perhaps just desperation has kept them with each other.  As I try to keep the older guy from going through the window with his body or his stick we make some chat.  I respond to some of his statements, and he must be used to being ignored as this warms him up further.

We talk about the nature of the game.  It’s just that, a game.  It ought to be for fun at some level.   There ought to be the ability to enjoy it regardless of the outcome.   And then he stops, and stops me.  Closer than I’d like to be. He thanks me for making eye contact with him.  For a moment the alcohol and the invective and whatever else this guy has to deal with slips away and there’s a moment where we’re just two guys around a table playing a game together.  For a moment it doesn’t matter how long he’s been homeless or how much money I make or anything else.  Just two guys and a game that equalizes us.

Then it was back to the swearing and stumbling.

I win that game and the final game with the younger guy.  They want to keep playing but the night is close to wrapping up for me.  I’ve won my first two matches and I know that my third and final one is coming up.  And while I want to be respectful to these two guys, I also want the employee behind the counter to make the decision on whether or not they should keep playing and putting the window and the table and the other customers possibly at risk of an accident.  I pack up the balls and head towards the counter.  The younger guy – to my surprise – is pulling out money.  I wasn’t sure whether or not they even had the ability to pay.  I tell him to keep it, which clearly surprises him.  It’s just a game, and we had a good time.  That’s enough.  And it’s a good reminder that sometimes these little things – eye contact, a willingness to see other people rather than seeing through them or around them – can mean a lot.  Even if we’re as different as night and day.  God created each of us.  Jesus died for each of us.  That ought to give us a nudge now and then to not be so eager to avoid the encounters that we aren’t sure we’re going to enjoy.

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2 Responses to “Gruff”

  1. J.P. Says:

    I love reading stuff like this. This is “mission from the pool hall.” It’s great. It matters.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      I worry more often that it comes off as self-indulgent tripe or self-glorification – which it isn’t meant to be. At all. Hopefully it encourages people to remember that our age, as every age, values greatness in the wrong ways, never in “the least of these”. God hasn’t called all of us to be Billy Graham, but that doesn’t mean that He hasn’t called us. Thank you.

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