The gamble

With each step down the basement stairs, more of my father’s body comes into view. First his Reebok sneakers, followed by his jeans, and then his t-shirt. Outside, rain falls along the Saturday afternoon. The white concrete walls are damp with moisture. 

We have a pool table down here. Nothing fancy, probably from Sears or Montgomery Ward. I love the trapezoid of light that falls from the overhead light. I love how the world fades to dimness beyond the table’s edge. I hit the balls and try to get them to ricochet back into the pocket. I adore the geometry of the game even before I have the words for it.  

He watches me for a couple of shots.  I ask him to play and bet him a quarter.      

He wins, but I get a few lucky drops and keep it close.  I stand awkwardly, rolling one of my remaining balls lightly against the rail.  I ask him to play again, double or nothing.  He agrees. I lose again, a little more quickly this time, and bet again. 

If my father sees what is coming, he makes no show of it.      

By the third game, I crumble.  My nascent skills fold under pressure.  I fall behind and panic.  I cannot get my mind off the fact that I am losing.  I fumble shots.  I scratch.  The heat of loss radiates my skin.  My heart races in my throat.  I keep losing and keep asking for double or nothing.  I hope that with one win, I will begin to claw back from the hole I have dug.  Instead, I continue digging.            

After the last game, he puts his cue down on the table and says he is finished playing.  This may be out of mercy or boredom, I’ll never know.        

I owe him $20, an enormous amount of allowance and extra chores.  He heads back upstairs, ascending and disappearing.  He writes what I owe him on the calendar in the kitchen. The numbers laugh at me. I repay him over several weeks, what seems like an eternity. Years later, I am thankful for the lesson.      

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