There really is a Kansas sky, wide as the land is flat. On fall mornings it seemed
as if the stratosphere itself dropped down just before dawn to touch the trees,
make crisp the leaves of brown and red and yellow, rise again to paint the sky a
deep blue, and leave the air as clean and as fresh as a newly-cut lemon.
That Saturday the crystals of the first light frost melted on the buffalo grass and
wet my shoes as I went to catch a ride to town on the bus for the insane.
For four years my father had been the dentist at the state mental hospital where we
lived on the grounds, but I have never gotten used to crazy people. Their eyes.
Even though I worked one summer in the cafeteria and saw hundreds of them in line
twice a day, I could never get used to those paranoid, schizophrenic, neurotic,
manic, depressive eyes. I used to fear insanity was contagious when I looked into
their eyes, those windows to their mad souls. Feverish eyes I linked to the screams
I heard at night, screams that made me spend my nights wondering what populated
those screaming nightmares, screams that make me wonder if what populated their
nightmares one day might populate mine, too, and make me scream.
But that morning the dry chill air swept through the bus and cleansed them of their
hospital smell, and, it seemed to me, if they would only look up into the blue of
the sky, it would cleanse them of their madness, too.
A group of twenty patients were allowed each Saturday to go to town for a
three-hour visit: to walk the streets, sit in the park, see people. I did not know
how they are chosen out of the hundreds of insane in the hospital.
I hitched a ride with the insane because I wanted to go early to Duke's Snooker
Hall where I was to meet Fred at 9 a.m.
Saturday. The most beautiful day of the high school week. Farmers brought their
families to town to shop. Kids played touch football in the park. But a tap, a
click, and a plop -- snooker --had become the ruling passion of my life.
The bus followed the river route, wound through the shadows of the tree-lined road
into the sun and past the plowed fields.
The bus parked on the side street, the patients were reminded to return by 11 a.m.,
and they were allowed to spread through town like paint spilled on an uneven
The fall wind swirled dust in the wide street and caused crushed paper cups to
scratch against the gutter as I walked past the new bank on the corner, the small
cafe with greasy hamburgers, the Western Auto store, Duckwalls, the baby clothing
store and the drug store where the morning coffee drinkers were sitting at the
narrow marble counter reading the paper and talking about our football victory last
Farther down, near where the railroad tracks cross Main Street, the bars were
cleaning up. The front windows and door of the Red Lounge was painted red so that
you had to stand on tiptoe to peer in. The door was open and an old man stood at
the bar talking to the bartender who was sweeping the floor. As I looked in, he
downed half the beer into his mouth, a gaping toothless maw held wide against the
rim of the glass.
Next door was the most beautiful danger to the morals of our town's youth -- Duke's
Snooker Hall. Our rites of manhood were, at the legal age of sixteen, to drive the
car to Duke's, walk through the front door. At fourteen, Duke would let us in the
back door so, if we behaved ourselves, we could begin to learn the fine and manly
art of snooker.
Women did not enter. The most grizzled old hag would only stand at the front door
and shout at her husband farmer that "it's time to get back home, Harry!"
Duke was wiping the blackboard with a wet rag. The floors had been swept, the
spittoons dumped and the front and back doors were open, but no amount of fresh
fall air could have ever removed the decades of smoke that had settled into the
cracks of the leather-covered chairs and been imbedded between the grains of wood
in the slate-based snooker tables. It was a place for men.
The air currents streamed Duke's cigar smoke towards the back door. The left corner
of his mouth had been stretched into a permanent hole by hundreds of weekly cigars
and his coughs -- ghastly things that seemed to be generated from his bowels --
were constant counterpoints in the poolroom's vulgar symphonies.
Duke nodded at me when I walked by and gave me a look that said: "I've seen punks
like you all my life." He taught us our boundaries. No alcohol was sold and a curse
word would bring his baleful glance and a reminder of the sign on the wall: "If you
wouldn't say it in front of your mother, don't say it here."
Rows of cue racks lined the walls, each socket full so Duke could tell at a glance
if any cue were stolen. I found my favorite and lifted its familiar weight. A pool
cue, drawn to its full length through a curled finger, was our idea of manly
beauty. And just as the six-gun had once made all men the same size, snooker was
our modern equalizer.
Amazing how a simple idea -- balls rolling on a flat surface into holes -- can
develop into a scene that was a part of the prairie as much as the plowed field. An
idea refined so that the balls were of ivory, the flat surface was felt stretched
over slate, held steady in a heavy wooden table, so heavy it required four men to
lift, eight to carry.
Later in the morning the old men would enter: ancient men who had become a part of
the soil and were only waiting to reenter it. They sat in the chairs against the
wall as if they were still waiting for the Great Depression to end. Their faces had
been furrowed by watching mud balls form in the air as rain fell through the dust
storms of the 1930s; faces creased by seeing wheat burn in the sun, eaten by
disease, consumed by floods. They had smelled their neighbors lucky oil wells, had
plowed and plowed the soil like a sailor the sea, always searching, hoping, and
finally despairing of making a living on their land. Yet somehow, like a stubborn
leaf, late in fall, still on the tree, not knowing summer was over, they persisted.
Finally, near seventy, perhaps the wife dead, the children gone into the city,
wanting nothing of farming, they'd sell the land. Then, their soul torn from their
body, they'd fill the poolroom with their lost stares. They'd come in hopes of a
brief friendship and a bit of humanity over a game of dominoes.
Their sense of being lost gave a heavy dreary feeling to the place, a feeling that
made winning all that more exciting and losing all that more depressing. Snooker
was a game that required a refined delicate tightness, a state of ordered mental
calm so that the will could be intensified and directed through the arm into the
I knew my mother wanted me to direct my life the way I directed my concentration at
the snooker table. But I had no idea what cue to use in the game of life, what
balls to hit, what holes to aim for, nor how to chalk up points.
I smacked the off-white break ball into the triangle of reds, making a red ball and
in position for a shot at the black seven. I replaced the break ball with the
lighter and whiter cue ball. Duke walked over the chalk up my time. He cheated a
few minutes, but then his prices hadn't changed since the Depression -- a penny a
minute per stick or twenty cents a game.
Making the seven, I pulled shape on another red and felt that all was right with
the world. I ran four sevens, thirty-two points, phenomenal for me, and I felt
secure as the world narrowed to the confines of the rubber banks.
A sudden draft of air made me lookup at the door. A huge man filled the doorway. He
was dazed by coming in from the bright sun. Then his shoulders lost their life and
he slumped forward and walked in. I recognized him as one of the mental patients
who rode to town on the bus. I hadn't realized how big he was. For a minute, at the
door, erect, he looked like a bear suddenly lost who stretches up on his hind legs
for a better look. I resumed play, but my concentration was shot as the floor and
the chair at one end of my table creaked under his weight.
His red hair was in a burr cut and his mouth hung open. With his hands folded in
his lap he looked like a mongoloid idiot. But instead of a vacant stare in his eyes
you could tell something was going on. Even Duke seemed bothered by him, but two
old men came in the back door and Duke joined them at a domino table.
I missed an easy straight shot and wanted to shove the butt end of my cue into the
guy's face for wrecking my game.
"I'm gonna beat your ass, Fats," I heard Fred shout as he slammed the back door and
entered like a sunburst. "Rack 'em. I'll break, out of your respect for my superior
ability," he said and went searching for his cue.
"My ass," I said, but it's true. Fred has the kind of intelligence and bluster best
suited for snooker. His stroke looks easy, but is like a pendulum swing of a bucket
of cement tied to a thin wire.
He broke, made the five and spotted it. "It will indeed be your ass," he said and
bent down to begin a run of four five's.
In the struggle to keep within winning distance the world for me again narrowed to
the bounds of the table. Fred swooped around like a hovering hawk, studying, then
dipping for a strike. His play has sparkle, like a geometry teacher who, fascinated
by angles and lines, uses colored chalk to make the theorems live.
My geometry, duller, was also accurate, however, and I am only five points behind
when the reds are gone and we began to shoot rotation on the yellow two, green
three, brown four, blue five, pink six, and the black seven. I made the two, three
and four to go four points ahead but missed on the five, which Fred banked in to go
one up and then pocketed the six. I needed the seven to tie, but Fred made that,
too, on a difficult long bank.
"And so, you lose," he smiled.
"Nice shot, lucky."
Duke got up to rack the balls, but Fred waved him back, "We can rack 'em."
"I won two bucks last night," Fred said, still grinning as he goes around the table
taking balls out of the pockets and rolling them to me.
"I don't know. Some guy from Great Bend. We played 10 games and I took six of them."
"You could have lost ten dollars."
"No, I could have won ten dollars. I suppose you went to the dance last night."
"Standing around with the other stag apes asking freshmen girls to dance?"
"Yeah," I say, blush and lift the triangle off the balls.
"You'll never be a snooker player that way, Jim. Who are you going to ask to
"I don't know."
"I don't know either. Let's play snooker that night. Take the money you'd spend on
a girl and chance it here. We can plan partners," Fred said and took aim on the
break ball with his cue.
"Agreed," I said as he slams the ball into the waiting triangle.
I didn't know then, but learned later, that a person who has no point about his
life is lost. By point I don't mean a meaning to his life, but something else; that
essential quality about the personality you perceive on first meeting and a
knowledge of which grows as you know him. It is either a passion, a desire, perhaps
a search for something unnamed, a melancholy, a particular strength or weakness,
even a smile, or a parting of the hair or a squint of the eye, but a character, a
point; and people without it seem to live their lives in an obscure mud,
indiscernible from the other anonymous grains of dust.
It was the crown of Fred's head, that bony promenade with which he encountered the
world like an advancing horde of soldiers, soldiers who knew there were no reserves
behind them, but were unconcerned because they had yet to meet anything that could
withstand their charge.
Fred had no shot after his break and missed a two-ball combination.
I slam home a red into the side, stop the cue ball on the spot and walk around the
table to line up on the blue five ball, plop the five in, Fred re-spots it for me
and I tried a corner shot on a red, make it and am left with a long reverse corner
shot on the six.
I bent down to shoot at the pink six, but stopped when I saw the huge insane man
was watching me and drooling on his folded hands. His hands were in direct line
from the six and the pocket. I could see the pool of saliva run off the back of his
hand onto his pants and another glob dropped down as I shot. The pink ball, as if
repelled by the hands, caught the corner of the pocket and bounced away.
As the ball came to rest, two of Larned's best snooker players, Jackson Jones and
Melvin Washington, walked through the front door. They were black, they were feared
and Duke's was one of the rare places, other than school, where we had any kind of
social contact with them.
There were less than a dozen Negro families in town and only six blacks went to our
high school. We knew very little about them. Our general attitude was that Kansas
was, just barely, a free state in the Civil War so claims the winning side and
freed the slaves; so Negroes should be grateful. But our young blacks didn't look
grateful and I lived in mortal fear of being stabbed by one.
There were two blacks on the football team: a fellow senior who was a star halfback
with piston pounding legs; the other was an overweight junior with bear like arms
that you could watch crushing puny, terror-eyed, opposing white quarterbacks.
None of them attended the after-game dances and I'm sure that if Bruce, the
halfback for whom cheerleaders squealed during his touchdown runs, would have asked
one of the bouncy things to dance, she would have fainted.
Byron and I were at least on speaking terms as we shared a study table in the ninth
grade. One day a seventh grader walked up to him and pointed to another seventh
grader, "He called you a nigger." Byron sat still, then stood up and went over to
the study hall teacher. He asked for something, and the teacher left the room.
Byron walked to the accused, put a hand around his skinny neck and slapped him -- a
forehand that followed through, hesitated, then returned across reddened face as a
backhand. Byron walked back to our table, sat back down and continued studying. It
was all done in less than a minute and in complete silence except for the ringing
slaps. It had the dignity of appropriate action about it.
But of the other blacks I had a prejudicial fear, which is just as stifling as a
Blacks were associated in my mind with switchblades, evil looks, maddening slow
shuffles and bullying in the halls. The terror of my lily white heart was that one
of them would simply stick a knife between my ribs in the hall one day and continue
on his slow way.
So, I was not happy when the two blacks who entered Duke's strutted to our table
and asked in a demanding voice that we play doubles for five.
I didn't want to play for five. I didn't want to play them for a dime. I didn't
even want to play for fun. Five bucks, two-fifty for me was a holiday issue of
Playboy with money left over for ten nickel cokes.
"Yeah, sure," Fred said.
"Rack 'em," Jackson yelled to Duke. "Lag for break."
"Put your money in the pocket," Fred said and pulled a five out of his billfold.
Jackson pulled a wad out of his pocket and pealed off five ones and stuffed them
down the corner pocket.
Duke racked the balls with a deliberate exactitude he used to smoke his cigars.
The table waited: a static cosmos needing an exploding beginning. The honor of that
God-like thrust, spreading the whirling balls across our green universe, went to
the best lag.
Fred laid his cue stick on the edge of the table and guided it like a whisper
through his index and middle fingers. Jackson grabbed the cue ball from the unused
neighboring table and took the same stance. They tapped balls, sending them to the
opposite end bank.
The white balls, rolling side by side, had all the richness of cloudy opals turning
over and over across a velvet carpet. Fred's ball was slightly faster and came off
the bank first. They both lost speed as they approached their shooters. Fred's ball
tapped the bank lightly and stopped an inch away. Jackson's, grinding slower and
slower, the nicks on the ball visible as it slowed, came to rest against the rail
-- a perfect lag.
Jackson shuffled his right hand farther back on the handle of the cue, took a wider
stance, pumped twice at the break ball, then crashed it into the head of the
triangle. His nails were long and, I noticed with surprise, immaculate. I had never
noticed that before. His long, almost effeminate, hands contradict a sneering face,
which I saw then not as a sneer but determination as he ran four seven balls for 32
points with his soft-shooting, elegant style of snooker. But he missed a thin cut
His excellent shape on the five ball in the middle of the table was my boon and
set me up for a run of three, five-point blue balls before I suddenly became too
conscious of my hands, played that last five stupidly and had poor shape on any
other red. One red ball was behind the two, three, and four balls, still on their
spots at one end of the table. I banked that red ball away and left the cue ball
snookered behind the middle four ball.
"Nice shot," Fred told me and marked our score on the blackboard: we were behind 18
Jackson's partner, Melvin, banked the cue ball and hit a red, avoiding a four-point
penalty, but set up Fred.
The remaining reds were scattered over the table and Fred's flashing hands put
together an intricate run of 25 points. He used the crutch to make the first seven
"Only old ladies use a crutch," Jackson said as Fred pulled the long pole with the
attached bridge out from under the table.
"And old ladies never miss," Fred replied and made the black ball. He made a three
and a four before pocketing a final seven.
We went ahead by eight points, which Jackson erased by making the final two reds
and long opposite corner shots on two sixes. With the reds gone, rotation began and
Jackson dribbled home the two, but was unable to bank the three into the side.
Forty-eight to forty.
The three ball was left beside the side pocket and I reverse banked it into the
opposite pocket and pulled lucky shape on the four, popped it in, and we were one
point behind. My shot on the five, which is at the opposite end of the table, was
poor, so I played for a leave and almost snookered Melvin behind the six.
Melvin, who was a pudgy fingered, punch-stroking fast player, had been frustrated
by my first leave. I expected to see anger on his face for his having no shot a
second time, but instead there was a shrug of what I took to be respect. He
crouched down and looked at how big a piece he could get of the five. He chalked
his cue, knocked off the excess dust, and hit the cue ball hard at the showing
wedge of blue five. It careened from the bank near the side pocket and rocketed
into the opposite side pocket. He could have been aiming for the bank, or it could
have been luck. Snooker accepts slop.
"Where'd ya learn that shot?" Fred asked.
"From my Aunt Clyde," Melvin grinned. "Who told me never to be ashamed of your
We were playing above ourselves. Mostly silent, we had been watching each other's
faces and hands in a kind of trance. The level and pitch of seriousness broken only
by the two verbal exchanges. The table would come to rest then one of us would give
the bare facts of our existence, the balls, motion and life. A rivalry could be
felt between Fred and Jackson as Fred rapidly had ascended to the first rank of
high quality snooker players and was now a match for Jackson.
Fred had only shot once, though, in the rapid game and suddenly I remembered we are
playing for money.
Melvin missed a hook attempt and Fred made a dangerous slow cut on the six to the
side. We were tied 53 to 53 and the seven was game ball. Fred left himself a
scratch shot on the black ball and rather than risk it, he played a perfect leave
by putting the seven against the midpoint of the far rail. Jackson's only shot was
to try a bank or leave me bad.
He set and went for the bank.
In such a shot you can shoot soft, increasing your chances to make it if your bank
is accurate and the seven rolls close to the narrow corner pocket; or you can shoot
harder so that if you miss, the ball will bounce farther from the pocket.
Jackson gave the seven a soft shove with the cue ball. The ball came off the rail
and trickled towards the pocket. It lost too much steam and was left four inches
from the hole.
I wanted it so bad I could taste it. I could feel the seven dropping in the pocket
and all the attendant glories. the happiness, the money -- unexpected free gold. We
would go for an early delicious hamburger, eat it laughing. We would drive through
the park, drag main street, the day made sweet by our victory and we would
congratulate each other on our fine play, the victory stroke mine, set up by Fred's
superlative leave -- if I could make this shot.
"God, get it. Just get it, Jim," Fred whispered as I chalked my cue.
I bent down and looked at the black seven ball. With one stroke I could down my
prejudicial fear of the black knife. Snooker was our equalizer. I was equal. I
could be victorious and face them in the hall with this victory as a knife-proof
vest. I tapped the white ball, it approached the black ball, but lacked authority,
as if afraid of touching it, and only brushed it, sending the black ball near the
edge of the pocket where it caught the corner and sat.
Fred said nothing. He walked over and put away his stick as Melvin bent down to win
the game. I heard Fred slap coins down on the cash register to pay for our time as
the black ball fell with a gentle, heart-sickening plop.
I stood, stick in hand. Jackson took the money from the pocket and they left
through the front door, saying nothing. I looked at the table, now empty except for
the white cue ball alone in the universe.
I walked over to put my cue in the rack and a strong wet hand grabbed my thin
wrist. My wrist felt like a pencil in the grasp of the drooling insane man. I
looked at him, afraid to try and pull away. His eyes were trying to say something
and then I heard a voice, long pent-up, creaking like an rusty crane, dragging
sound up from the bottom of his diaphragm.
"You wanted it too bad," it whispered to me.
I didn't even nod. He sat up straight as he talked, his eyes bright, understanding,
his lips almost smiling as the hoarseness of his voice continued:
"You just wanted it too bad, that's all. You can't want things too bad. You want
'em too bad and you don't get it, it hurts too much. It just hurts too much. If you
don't want 'em so bad, then you don't care. If you don't care. You got to learn
just not to care so much."
He looked at his hand holding my wrist and let go, folded his hands back in his
lap, and his shoulders seemed to give up the struggle.
"Of course you always care and you always want things too bad," he concluded.
I walked out the back door and got into Fred's car.
Fred said nothing, turned the key and started the engine.
The light was yellow off the back of Duke's and I could see the cracks in the old
"I just wanted it too bad," I told Fred, and I looked through the windshield, up,
far up, into the blue Kansas sky.