One of the things about my world, the world according to Tom, is that it is perfectly designed, perfectly ordered, and perfectly understandable to me. I know this because it was one of the first rules I wrote down in the Book of Tom; along with its obvious corollary - anything not so perfectly designed, perfectly ordered, and perfectly understandable to me becomes a search and destroy mission for Sergeant Saunders in a new episode of Combat! But I wasn’t sure even Vic Morrow could clean up this mess. I needed answers. I had to find Beth.
Wandering outside, I crossed Middle Path, passing between Ransom Hall and another, much larger building that looked more like a castle than a school building. It only lacked a moat. That had to be Ascension Hall, one of the main classroom buildings. It carried a lot of student traffic; which I avoided, heading instead toward the dining hall - Peirce. I needed a drink. Peirce Hall was a building with a square bell-less bell tower and windows that reminded me of a church. I was beginning to wonder if the suits that had put this place together had trouble finding architects who knew anything about what a school was supposed to look like. I walked inside, into a slate floored room that had winding stone steps up and down, an open door to the right - to the dining hall - and glass doors that led to a paneled room filled with comfy chairs. Inside, a student was banging away on a piano - something classical-sounding but, thankfully, partially muted by the closed doors. Classical music and poetry belonged in the same dumpster. I peeked into the dining hall. No one was there, so I wandered into the huge paneled and raftered room with polished wide-board wood floors. It was filled with wooden tables and benches, and had chandeliers lit just enough to give a warm, yellow glow to everything in the room. It had the same strong leather and polish smell of Mrs. Hoople’s, probably the only brand sold at the one and only grocery store in town. Sunlight filtered through a stained glass window behind a raised alcove where stood the mighty head table of the high and mighty captains of the school; a fine galley for the pirates and crew, but not my style. I preferred Formica and plastic.
In the quiet of the Peirce dining hall I became aware of a distant clicking noise back in the entry. I retreated and followed the sound up one flight of steps and down a short hallway to an open door. Standing in the doorway, my eyes adjusted to the dim interior lights of the windowless room. It was a pool hall - four tables and a counter with a rack of cues behind it. A lone white-haired, old man was shooting straight pool on the back table. There was a certain code of conduct in a pool hall, a real pool hall anyway, like the ones Minnesota Fats and the Hustler played in, and I honored that code. I picked up one of the barstools positioned around the room for players and spectators, and sat down a respectful distance from him, not wanting to cramp his style.
He ran fourteen balls before looking up at me. “How’s Mrs. Hoople?” he asked, racking them up and preparing to break again.
I could feel my cheeks reddening. I was getting tired of people thinking I was Harry and was considering blowing the whole cover. It was like the stupid jerk had stolen my face and was flashing it all over Gambier like a credit card. Will that be Visa, Mastercard, or Tom? “She’s doing well.”
“Good.” He broke and sunk the two ball. “What about you? I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s your story? You quit playing?” There was a flat, matter-of-factness to his voice that took any sting from what could have been pointed questions usually associated with the Parental Gestapo. He was the type that just laid out the facts and let you draw your own conclusions. I realized that of all the people I had run into, it was the old coots I liked best. They didn’t have time for the crap that everyone else was shoveling. They were making the most of what time they had left; knowing that time was short. Too bad it takes young people so long to catch on. Sometimes their time runs out sooner than they expect. I couldn’t remember ever having seen Harry play pool. It wasn’t one of those things our family ever did - too expensive and not particularly wholesome. Of course, that didn’t stop me from hanging out at the Brunswick with my not-so-wholesome friends. I was more into the hanging out part, though. It wasn’t my kind of game - too hard to cheat at it without getting beat up; and too easy to get beat up when everyone in the place was carrying a club. “I stink and I don’t like losing,” I replied, smirking.
The old man laughed, causing him to lose his concentration and miss. “You never could beat old Potsy, could you? It used to piss you off mighty fierce.”
Harry could never beat anybody at anything, but he never got mad about it. I noticed a coke machine and pulled some change from my pocket. Before I could get it into the coin slot, Potsy stopped me with his cue, tapping it on my chest. “You know the rules - players only. Gawkers get their Coke from the cafeteria.” I shrugged. I didn’t remember that part of the pool hall code from The Hustler, but who was I to argue with a man pointing a stick in my face? He smiled: “Aw, go ahead, just this once - for old times.”
“Thanks, Potsy.” Coke in a glass bottle for only a dime - now that was my kind of drink. I took another long pull from the bottle and decided to start making a list of those who would be saved from the inevitable destruction of Ohioland with the sinking of the pirate ship, The Kenyon.
Back to his game, Potsy sunk three quick shots without changing position. This guy was good. “How’s that girlfriend of yours?” He paused a second to remember her name: “Beth. She’s probably why you quit. Not enough time for nookie and pool, eh?”
I laughed, nearly choking on the swallow of coke and sprayed all over my sleeve. “You bastard. I ought to whoop your butt up and down the table for that.”
Before I had even a second to consider regretting my comeback, Potsy slammed a dollar down on the table. “You’re on. Go get your stick. I’ll break.”
My dollar was on the cushion beside his, my cue was chalked, my hands were powdered, and… I was going to lose. This wasn’t like a chess board that I could just accidentally tip over and say ‘oops,’ calling the match a draw. This was a five hundred pound slate table. This wasn’t a war game where I made all the rules. This was pool. Oh yeah. I was going to lose big time. At least it was only a dollar and not my Coke-soaked shirt that the old man was going to take from me. The old geezer broke, artfully sending two balls off the cushion and leaving the cue ball awkwardly on the other side of the pack. “There. I gave you a shot. Let’s see if you remember anything of what I taught you.”
Well, that wasn’t happening since I had never been his student, but it looked like I had a chance at one of the balls he had dislodged. Fat chance. It would require a lucky bank shot and I hated bank shots. I bent over the table under the overhanging light, lining it up, and looked up at him. “Do I seem any different to you?
Or look different? Or anything?”
He considered me for a minute. “Nope. You been sick?”
“Do I look sick?”
“No. I just never figured out why you stopped coming around. Mrs. Hoople seems to think it’s because you’ve been busy finishing up things. Me? I thought we were buddies. Seemed like a funny thing to do to a buddy; leave him high and dry like that.”
Homespun ethics - something I’d never understood. I eyed up the shot. No way I’d ever make it, but I didn’t have much choice. “I’ve had something… going on.” A smooth stroke - the cue ball banked off the side and tapped the thirteen perfectly. We both watched it roll slowly into the corner pocket. I smiled and put my hand on his shoulder. “Did you miss me?”
Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good, but not this time. I missed my next shot miserably and he ran the table. I looked up at the clock and whistled softly. It was noon and I was hungry. He racked them up again. “You ain’t giving up already, are you? I’m not done with your whopping. Three in the corner,” He said, tapping the pocket three times with the cue. Potsy sunk the one ball in the corner, dislodging several others. Maybe he wasn’t as good as he seemed. I moved to the table to respot the ball he had mistakenly sunk but he was bending over to line up another. “What are you up to there, sonny? I’m not done yet.”
“You sunk the wrong ball.”
“I called one in the corner and I sank the one in the corner.”
“You called the three ball.”
He stood up, tapping the soft rubber of the cue on the floor thoughtfully. “There is something different about you, boy. You don’t remember how to play pool.”
“You said ‘three.’” Old man or no old man, I was going to slug him. He was a bigger cheater than me. But that wasn’t why I was here.
“Three taps, three in a row, same pocket. Even you should know there’s only one ball that can go that way from where I was. What’s wrong with you, anyway?” He bent over and proceeded to sink the next two balls into the same corner pocket.
“Oh.” I supposed that was possible. I had gotten bored during the second half of The Hustler. I sat on the stool, thinking, while he proceeded to run the rest of the rack. “Let’s say that I have forgotten how to play pool, that I’ve forgotten a lot of things. Let’s pretend that I’m someone else who has no idea what’s been going on here for the last four years.” Potsy was watching me, an odd look on his face, like fear but not quite. I got up and put my hands on his bony shoulders, looking him squarely in the eye. “Let’s pretend for a minute that I don’t even remember you. Do you know what amnesia is?” I was that guy in the Alfred Hitchcock movie where he had amnesia and a fear of heights.
Potsy wasn’t biting. “You’re not getting your dollar back.” He laid his cue on the table, signaling the end of the match, and snatched up the money. He walked over to the coke machine and took out a bottle without depositing a dime. “It means you don’t remember things, right?”
“Right, like the fact that the coke is free to players, you old skinflint.” I laughed. The old fart had snookered me on that. I liked him a lot, but I couldn’t see how he could have liked Harry. Now me? We could have done pretty well together. “I don’t remember much about myself at all. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m even me anymore.” I didn’t want to give him a heart attack, especially having already calculated that the Mount Vernon ambulance would never get here in time to save the famous John Crowe Ransom, let alone a nobody pool hall proprietor named Potsy, but I really needed to ask him some questions without blowing my cover. So I told my story, starting with the Pancake House, embellishing it as needed to suit this situation, but trying to be consistent just in case, and ending with a plea for him to keep it all under his hat. After all, we didn’t want to scare anyone, especially Mrs. Hoople. He watched me the entire time, his expression changing from fear and uncertainty to concern. This was art - not that crap that Harry had put together for his classes.
“So you don’t remember me?” He seemed disappointed.
“I remembered that you’re my friend. That’s why I came back.”
Potsy and I spent an hour or so talking. It turns out he was what they called a ‘townie’ which was the looking-at-you-down-my-nose kind of term that the college students and staff used to refer to the local population. It was something he and most of the other townspeople resented, and had complained to the school officials about, but couldn’t do much to stop. I would definitely need several planks to accommodate all the idiots that would be walking them when the time came. Potsy knew Mrs. Hoople from church and it was there that he had met Harry during his freshman year. From what I could tell, Harry had almost immediately taken up residence with the old lady, making him the ideal in absentia roommate for any student who really wanted a single but couldn’t afford it. He and Potsy had struck up an immediate friendship and that’s when Harry started playing pool once or twice a week, spending the afternoon with Potsy drinking free Coke and talking about the world’s troubles as seen from Ohioland.
Not many students came to the pool hall any more and it was scheduled to be closed permanently after the current school year to make room for more dorm space - a financial decision, nothing personal. I jotted that down to make sure I didn’t forget to add it to one of Soup Edwards’ walls. “It’s a personal decision, nothing financial.” Potsy was doing this basically for free so it wasn’t like he would be out of a paying job, but it was clear he would have pretty much nothing to do with himself once the Brunswicks were hauled away. They weren’t even going to let him have his favorite table, not that it would have fit in his apartment. They were being sold as antiques. I doubted there was a gold watch in it for him either. I felt sorry for the guy. It was a strange feeling, one I didn’t often have to deal with, because it usually meant I liked the person; and that always complicated things.
About a month ago Harry had stopped coming to the pool hall for no apparent reason. Harry had also stopped going to church, so Potsy wasn’t able to ask him directly what was going on, and Mrs. Hoople would only say that she hadn’t seen him and was worried but thought that he must have been busy finishing up schoolwork. Potsy didn’t see it that way at all. People came first, always did, and there was no changing that. Funny, I would have thought Harry would see it that way, too, making it all the more crazy that he should just abandon his friends for nearly a month and then turn up dead; not that a body had been found yet, but it all seemed to be heading in that direction. I really needed to find Beth.