I am a guy who plays pool at one of the tables in the local college cafe. I am about seventy-three years old and I go there because it is free, not because I am looking to pick up young college girls or anything. I am trying to hone my game. I am trying to become the best at something I can possibly become—it does not matter whether I am better than everyone else, only that I have reached personal mastery. I try to play at least two hours per day. I bring my own cue and chalk, even. A half-glove made of kid-skin so the cue does not abrade my hand, or catch on it when I am making my shots. It’s about smooth action and carrying through. I have gotten good recently at putting ‘spin’ or ‘english’ on the ball when I shoot it, which makes it jitter across the table’s felt. The white ball jumps to life and can curve, and while some people think that pool is about straight lines, it is not. In actuality it is about intuition, and feeling out what is going to happen before it does. In that way it is a little like becoming an oracle or a wizard. I happen to have access to the college library because I know one of the librarians from back when we were both kids together, in Ohio. She was good friends with my future wife, then girlfriend. The librarian liked my wife, but we have reached an easy balance after the divorce, the librarian and I (that is, we don’t talk about it). I have checked out books about historical oracles, sometimes men but mostly women. Sometimes they stand by cracks in the earth and inhale intoxicating gases that come from the cracks. I think my pool game could become really good, at least with respect to how good I have the capacity to become, if I could play by one of these earth cracks. It sounds silly, but also whole civilizations, like the Greeks and Romans, sometimes depended on these oracles for wars and battles, so don’t count out how important these kinds of things can be.
The secret to laying down a really great shot is to not look at the ball, but instead where you want the ball to go. It is similar to golf, and small talk. As long as you are aiming at where you would like to go, rather than latching on to specific and current moments, then there is much smaller chance of choking, or getting stuck. It is a trained blindness. This is the goal and not the goal. I once watched a cable special on a blind pool player who had bested all but the very best pool players. He would touch each ball, under the watchful eye of a table-side judge, and then line up his shot through some process of internal visualization. He described it as a sort of meditation. Then he would shoot, and compare the clicks and clacks with his internal conception of what the clicks and clacks should have been. In this way, he said, he improved his game. It was a process of comparing the predicted against the actual. This is sort of what I am trying to do with my game. It is like what people say about drawing—that they can’t get what is in their head to come out of their arm. I have to train my body to act as a translator and visualizer all at once—pool is truly a complete game. It is also sort of like war, where the General must have a plan and also the deft skillset to implement that plan, as planned. Every game of pool is like a war I have to wage—a private battle against myself—and every day I get better insofar as I can recognize how I fall short of the goals I have set for myself. To achieve perfection is to have failed in diagnosing how I can become better. Become myself.
One of the college students who works at the cafe sometimes strikes up conversation with me, and I try to keep it brief. It does not do to linger. I am balding and she is young, and beautiful. I don’t want to give any impression. Her teeth are perfectly straight. Her sleek black hair falls behind her ears, which stick out a little farther than most people’s do.
The girl who occasionally strikes up conversation with me talks far more often to the other college students who work with her at the cafe. There is one with a young man’s uneven beard, one who has a nose-ring, one whose eyes are very wide-set in a nevertheless striking way, and one who is the shortest of all of them but makes up for it in a managerial demeanor that humbles me whenever I step foot in the place. I have to ask for a set of pool balls. The procedure for me is a little different than if I were a student, but they let me check out the pool balls without a problem anyway. You just have to ask.
I am not sure how seriously the girl who asks me things takes me, but she has commented on my glove, my cue which is polished to a dull gleam, and that I play a fierce game. In comparison to many of the students who futz around with the low-quality cues here, yes, I am alright, but I am nothing, I say to the girl, compared to some of the greats. She asks me if I am trying to become one of the greats, and I shake my head. I am just trying to become the best that I can be. She nods. She understands how it is to try and better yourself, I think.
Why pool, she asks me, in our most recent chat. I tell her that my dad played pool, back when he went to Yale. And his father, who went to not Yale but Princeton also played pool at a very exclusive Princeton pool club, up to and a little during the Great War. She looks up at me, because she is somewhat short (though not as short as the more assertive girl with the managerial air, whose hair is bleached a very bone-like white and whose shoulders manifest anger), and says wow, the First World War. I am no longer surprised at being surprised at my age, like when I look at my hands while I am washing up. I am proud that I can tell this young and beautiful person something I was told, and which they were not. I tell her stories of my grandfather and the rare extravagances of the Princeton pool club, as well as the Yale pool halls where my father honed his hands. She asks me where I went to college, and I say nowhere. Oh, she says. We go back to talking about my father and his father, and then she goes back to work at the cafe. I see her talking with one of her friends. One of them looks at me. She sees correctly, I can tell from looking into her eyes, that my father did not go to Yale, that my grandfather did not go to Princeton, that I have not been as forthcoming as I could have been. Every once in a while I am seen for what I am, or rather what I am not, but it is never for very long, or so often that I begin to hate myself in the same way they would if they knew me as I do.
I have had a hard life, but not interestingly so. So there is no real reason to complain.