Joe McNeill's mother used to say, there's a Mort Berger in every town, and she may have been right. But those of us who knew him in the summer of 1962 liked to think she was wrong and secretly hoped he was unique. Berger was the proprietor of the only pool hall I can ever remember seeing in our small town in Fairfield County, Conn. He was a Jew from South Philadelphia who spoke out of the side of his mouth. On windy days he stuck bobby pins in his hair, which was deep reddish brown, the color of an Irish setter's. But, at 33, he didn't have much to stick bobby pins in. To compensate, Berger let the little patch of hair at the base of his neck grow until it would reach far down his back if he let it—which he didn't. Instead, he combed it forward over his brow where he teased it into a tuft like a rooster's comb. Actually, Berger resembled a rooster more than anything. He had watery blue eyes, a pointy nose and the gently curving, bottom-heavy build of a Rhode Island Red. He waddled.
Berger's greatest fear was that a strong wind might come along and reveal his artifice. To defend against this possibility he ventured outside the pool hall as infrequently as possible. This tended to make his pale and mottled redhead's skin so opaque that veins were visible beneath it. Whenever he did appear outside he walked about with his hand flattened over the top of his head like a man who had misplaced a migraine. Finally, in desperation, he had resorted to bobby pins. It was hard for anyone, at first, to talk casually to Berger without breaking up at the sight of the bobby pins, but after a few withering looks one learned to ignore them. The only person I ever heard question Berger about them was a college freshman who wandered into the pool hall one day, challenged Jack the Rat to a game of dollar nine ball and then, pointing to Berger's hair, asked, "How come you got bobby pins in your head?" The place fell mute. It seemed even the skidding billiard balls froze in midflight. Berger's face took on the color of his tuft. He fixed a beady-eyed stare on the offender and said in a voice the recollection of which still sends shivers down my spine, "You, my friend, are banished for life." The humiliation! Worse even than Kant's categorical imperative! It would have been better for the boob if Berger, yarmulke over his tuft, prayer shawl about his shoulders, had intoned the Hebrew prayers for the dead.
That moment left a deep impression on all who witnessed it. Berger had banished most of us at one time or other, for offenses like firing a cue ball through a plate-glass window, or breaking a cue stick over the head of a $20 loser who promised he would return the next day with the money, but never for life. The worst we had ever received were indeterminate banishments such as, "until Jack the Rat returns with coffee." But a lifetime banishment! That went contrary to the one, all-abiding dictum with which Berger governed his life: "Never bounce a potential turkey." To have broken that golden rule without the slightest hesitation forced us all to view Mort Berger in a more spiritual light. He became for us, from that moment on, a man of principle.
Berger's ambition almost from childhood was to become a hustler—cards, pool, horses, craps, etc.—so that eventually he could fulfill his dream of owning a combination bowling alley and pool hall that would cater only to families and young couples. "A place with class," he liked to say. It must have occurred to Berger somewhere along the way that Philadelphia was too large a city for his modest talents, and so he began shopping about for a nice suburban community where his meager ability would be magnified by the citizenry's naiveté. He would content himself with being a big fish in a small pond or, rather, a big rooster in a small henhouse. That was why, in the spring of 1962, Mort Berger turned up in the quiet Fairfield County community. It was an affluent and virginal suburb of New York City, ripe for Morty's talents.
Berger promptly opened The Golden Stick in a neat boxlike building out on the Boston Post Road. The day before the opening he was confronted by a delegation of the town's teen-age wastrels. The group included Jack the Rat, Speedo, The Rodent, Len the Worm and Hank. Berger, perched high on a ladder outside The Stick, was swathed in white overalls and had a paintbrush in his hand. He warned the delegation below that The Stick would be "a place with class." Then he added, shaking his paintbrush in a menacing manner, "No trash is gonna be allowed inside." Looking up, Speedo was splattered with orange paint. The boys nodded at the warning and departed.
For a while Berger seemed to make an effort to be faithful to his word. The Stick did not look like one of those musty, nefarious pool halls that can be found in any big city. Outside it was painted that bright orange, and within the walls were a soft powder blue. There was a gold carpet on the floor. Berger's small office was paneled in pine and had a half-door that allowed him to follow the action around the room. The pool tables were new Brunswick models with felts of orange, gold, blue and the more traditional green. Hanging from the walls were dozens of cue sticks and an assortment of placards that warned The Stick's patrons the management would tolerate no profanity, no gambling and no minors. A minor was defined eventually as someone who had no money and/or was still being breast-fed.
On the first few days Berger stood in the doorway of The Stick, resplendent in a brown blazer with a crest of grapevines on the breast pocket, and handed out orange membership cards for the sum of $1. Nobody could enter without one. The card informed the bearer that he was entitled to all the privileges of The Stick. Berger (or rather "the management," as he liked to refer to himself) reserved the right to revoke those privileges at any time and for "any reason. Today the membership cards are considered something of a collector's item in Fairfield County. Their holders are a parochial lot, often referring to one another (much as the survivors of a great battle might) as the "originals." The originals still meet once a year, making a pilgrimage to Philadelphia, where today Mort Berger is the proud owner of his combination bowling alley and pool hall. Joe McNeill, who purchased the first membership card, had it laminated recently.
Although Berger might honestly have conceived of The Stick as a place with class, it did not take long before it became, in fact, a hangout for the town's high school and college students, fledgling pool sharks fresh from seven viewings of The Hustler and assorted "trash" between the ages of 15 and 25. Day or night one could find games of stud poker, nine ball and Chicago; baseball, basketball and football betting slips; racing programs and forms from Roosevelt and Aqueduct; and three small shells under which Mort Berger would gladly place a bean that would magically disappear the moment you slapped down a dollar bill. Berger did not need a house to fall on his tuft before he realized that his conception of what The Stick should be had to be altered drastically. He stopped wearing his blazer, threw away his membership cards, rolled up his sleeves and became The Stick's chief organizer of any and all games of chance.
As a result, The Stick became crowded and boisterous, so filled with the sounds of laughter, anger, profanity and anguish that it seemed always on the verge of destroying itself with its own pent-up energy. The place was dominated by the regulars, who stood conspicuously against the walls, Knights of the Cue Stick leaning on their foils, waiting faithfully for the approach of a turkey. When one stepped through the door there was a barely audible "gobble, gobble, gobble" around the room before someone pounced on him. The turkeys seemed to enjoy the attention they received as much as anyone. It gave some of them a sense of importance, a recognition they probably would receive nowhere else in life. The $10 or $15 they lost daily was small price to pay for the solicitous and faithful attention of such a hustler as Speedo.
"Kwasi, where ya been? I thought you had died on me or somethin'."
"Naw, just a little cold."
"Thank God! You had me worried, Kwasi. You gotta take care of yourself, kid. Think of your friends, the people who count on you. You know, Kwasi, you can't be recklessly selfish with so many people worrying about you."
"I guess you're right, Speedo."
"Sure I am.... Shoot a little nine ball, Kwasi?"
"Come on Speedo, whaddya think, I'm stupid?"
"Kwasi, how unfair! Just a friendly game. I'll even spot you the nine ball."
"I wouldn't shoot you if you spotted me the eight and nine."
"How about the eight, nine and break?"
"Eight, nine and break? Naw, I shouldn't."
"But Kwasi, you can't just go away. I want you, baby, I need you!"
When the turkeys were rare on particular days, the regulars passed the time playing practical jokes on Berger. One day Len the Worm threw a cue ball through the television screen in front of which Berger was placidly watching the Preakness; on another day Hambone took Berger to lunch at the nearby greasy spoon and, as he casually tossed a dead rat on the grill, turned to Berger and said, "Medium or well?" And on still another day The Rodent, in frustration over a missed shot, javelined his cue stick through the front window, almost impaling a bleary-eyed Berger, who was returning from an all-night poker session.
It is hard to say just how Berger viewed these pranks. Invariably they resulted in temporary banishment for the perpetrators, but when the big Chicago game began in the early afternoon, the exiled were readmitted.
The daily center of attention was the Chicago game played on table No. 1. In Chicago the players shoot the balls in rotation—one, two, three, etc.—and are paid only when they sink the one, five, eight, 10 or 15 balls, which are called "money balls." The player whose balls total the highest number of points also wins money.
The players in the game seldom varied, including Speedo, The Rodent, Len the Worm, Hank, Gary, Berger and myself. Speedo was so slight and baby-faced that he looked more like a fifth-grader than a high school senior. No one would ever have taken him for the consummate pool shooter he was, and this more than anything helped him assemble a faithful gaggle of turkeys, who found it inconceivable that they should lose money "to that little squirt." Speedo acquired his nickname because of the speed with which he could divest turkeys of cash and because he shot pool without taking so much as a split second to sight his shot, a tactic he had learned from Mort Berger.
Speedo was Berger's greatest admirer. He considered the proprietor a hustler of artistic proportions and studied assiduously at Berger's knee, to which he barely reached. However, Speedo lost confidence in his mentor one day when he and Berger teamed up to play a pair of strangers in a very expensive Chicago game. Midway through the game Berger stole an eight ball from the opponents' rack and placed it in his and Speedo's rack. When this discrepancy was discovered by one of the strangers he brought it to Berger's attention by repeatedly poking the tip of his cue stick into Berger's chest. This left little blue chalk marks on Mort's white shirt and drops of perspiration on his brow. The chalk marks looked like bullet holes from a distance. Berger assumed his most smitten air—wide-eyed, open-mouthed, incredulously pointing a finger at himself—and turned to a confused Speedo and said, "Son, I told you never to do that. I run an honest game here. I have my reputation, you know."
If it were not for Berger's intervention the two strangers would have played chicken wishbone with Speedo's frail and trembling frame. As it was, they left contentedly after scooping up all his spare cash. As the door shut behind them Berger was heard whispering to Speedo, "I told you never to steal a money ball, Speedo. Steal the four or six if you need to. Nobody ever pays attention to a four or a six."
Len the Worm, another regular, was a dark, shifty-eyed youth who perpetually glanced over his shoulder as if expecting some fearful specter to tap him at any moment and lead him away to God only knew what torments. The Worm had an odd, shaky, clawlike bridge with a cue stick, and although he shot a decent enough game he seldom sank a money ball. His bridge hand would shake terribly. He would gulp in air, running his tongue over his dry and pursed lips as he bent over to sight a shot. Pool affected us all a little like that, I guess. It was more than just a game or a means to easy cash. It was for us a symbolic playing out of some inner turmoil. The confrontation was not with a $5 money ball but with something that ball represented for each of us, some inner and complex doubt we were unable to overcome in reality, but which could be momentarily mastered by the simple act of shooting a colored plastic ball into a leather-lined pocket. It always brought short-lived success. Those inner doubts remained, undiminished, and they would reappear the moment we stepped outside of The Stick into what we began to refer to as "the real world." For most of us at that time, however, success on the pool table was a satisfactory substitute. It was for Speedo, say, proof enough that despite his size and appearance he could exhibit as much tenacity and courage as any 225-pound football player.
But alas, The Worm hadn't even that meager consolation. He was a thorough loser. And whenever he did miss an easy shot, the ball hanging precariously on the lip of a pocket but refusing to fall in, The Worm would turn to his audience, his eyes flitting in their sockets like ball bearings in an empty glass, and say: "It moved, it moved! The table moved. Did you see it?" He would grab Jack the Rat's sleeve and tug it until in the end Jack nodded tiredly in agreement. "It musta been a earthquake or somethin', Jack. It musta. Why does it always happen to me?"
The Worm was particularly susceptible to the ploys of Mort Berger, who could be counted on to sneeze, squeakily chalk his stick, jingle coins in his pocket or make a sudden move as if to catch a falling cue stick, causing The Worm to miscue and send the cue ball squibbling past a money ball. The Worm became so conscious of Berger's presence that after a while Mort no longer had to make a move or a sound in order to throw off The Worm's shot.
The Rodent, so named because his face came to a point at his nose, was the worst pool shooter among us. But he could afford to be. He was immaculately dressed in Brooks Brothers button-downs and Lord Jeff crew necks and seemed to be in possession of a bankroll large enough to sustain the heaviest losses in a Chicago game. The Rodent was very status conscious. He was always working on some plan that would propel him into the public limelight. In his Stick days he even went so far as to pay some of the regulars $10 a week just to let him hang around with them so he could learn to be "one of the boys," as he put it. The Rodent and his schemes (which included weekend trips to New York City to attend arty East Side parties where he could make himself known) were a source of amusement to The Stick regulars. However, The Rodent had the last laugh. He married a New York fashion model who earned about $200,000 a year and was five years older than The Rodent. As proof of his elevated status in life, The Rodent returned to Fairfield County one day, rustled up as many former Stick buddies as he could find and carted them off to his $250,000 New Jersey estate. There he showed them his 20-room mansion, his servants and the chauffeur-driven limousine that transported him and his wife to New York City each morning. When his friends asked him just what he did for a living The Rodent looked incredulously at them and said, "You mean, work?" He chuckled. He said he was a sort of producer, although he never mentioned what sort. Then he showed them a few yellowing Leonard Lyons columns from the New York Post that read something like: "What handsome young Broadway producer was seen holding hands with what high-fashion model at Arthur until the wee hours of the morning?" It was hard for his friends to believe that the "handsome young Broadway producer" was The Rodent. In fact, to this day none of us can ever remember seeing or hearing of any play that he produced. Of course, to be fair, I have to admit that we always tended to think of him as "The Rodent," which surely wouldn't be how his name would appear in the credits, and so we might have missed it a few times.
I haven't seen The Rodent in almost eight years, but Hank saw him recently in Miami Beach. Hank told him I was writing a memoir about our days at The Stick, and The Rodent became hysterical. He pleaded with Hank to intercede with me. "Tell him not to use my real name," he said. "If my days at The Stick ever get publicized it'll ruin me. In New York they think I have class."
The Rodent knew that if I'd listen to anyone it would be Hank. In 1962 Hank was 17 and considered the most well-balanced and intelligent habitué of The Stick. He shot a neat, precise, left-handed game of pool and was one of the few shooters I ever remember seeing whose game improved as the bets were raised. He was Berger's "houseman," a term that meant house champion. Hank spent most of his free time in The Stick, often cutting classes at the high school he attended in favor of drifting down to help Berger dust off the tables or empty the garbage in the morning. Those of us who thought about it could never understand why a person of Hank's caliber wasted his time at The Stick. We eventually discovered that he was having trouble both at school and at home. Finally one day he quit school, his parents threw him out of the house and that morning when I arrived at The Stick I saw Hank curled up under a blanket sleeping on the No. 8 table. He continued to sleep in The Stick for the following few weeks, thanks to Berger's generosity. To repay Berger, Hank cleaned up in the morning and generally ran The Stick until the management arrived late in the morning.
The only other regular who shot pool as well as Hank was Gary, a slight, pale 18-year-old with lank blond hair and a face completely devoid of character. His was one of those smooth, fine-featured faces with thin lips and a nose so delicate it seemed to flutter when he breathed. Gary was neatly dressed at the time, his khaki pants pressed and his longish hair watered and combed to the side. He was quiet, almost unobtrusive, and hung back in the shadows, practicing for hours by himself on a corner table. Gary never really participated in much of anything at The Stick during the first few months but seemed satisfied just to observe the action and the life around him. One day he decided that his game had improved enough to challenge me at nine ball. He shot decently for a while but then suddenly, as the pressure mounted, his game disintegrated, and even his features seemed to crumble like a plaster mask that had been cracked all along but only now was showing the fissures. After that game, which he lost, he drifted back into the shadows, practicing daily and declining offers to play anyone for money. About a month later he challenged again. I almost didn't recognize him at first. His clothes were unkempt, his hair disheveled and his handsome face had become bloated and yellowish, much as that of a man in the final stages of dissipation. The glands in his neck were swollen and so was his belly. He had lost teeth, I noticed. We played nine ball for a while, and he was so silent that just to make conversation I asked how he'd been.
Without looking up from his shot he muttered, "I'm still alive, ain't I?" I laughed at this, but he didn't. I later learned that he was not making a wisecrack but stating a fact. He had an incurable disease that should have killed him a year before. That was what accounted for his altered appearance.
Gary beat me for $15 that second time I played him. He played a ruthless game that almost frightened me. He opted for the riskiest shots and more often than not he made them. He eventually became, with Hank, the best "money shooter" in The Stick and, when I asked Hank what accounted for such a sudden change in his game, Hank said, "I guess shooting pool doesn't hold much pressure for someone who knows he should have died months ago."
I was the last of the regulars to arrive on the scene. I found The Stick one summer night after having spent eight hours lugging bricks and mortar up a scaffold for a mason. Inside the orange building I could hear the screech of chalked cue tips, the click of ivory balls and the crash of dollar bills fluttering to the felt—and it was music to dulled spirits. I picked up some balls and began practicing on a corner table. My hands were stiff from carrying the cement buckets, making it difficult to form a bridge through which to put the cue stick. This difficulty of mine did not go unnoticed for long and, as I fumbled about the table, a slim youth ambled over. He leaned against the wall, arms folded, and watched as I smacked the balls about with indiscriminate haste. He took careful note of my cement-stained clothes and my callused fingers. In a matter of minutes, however, I felt my cramped fingers loosen, and the stick, which I had been handling with all the grace of a hod carrier, becoming, as it always did after some shots, an extension of my arm. I did not change my awkward bridge, however, or the manner in which I was punishing the billiard balls. I had spent many afternoons under conical lights in towns like Quincy, Kokomo and Keokuk, and had sent many cue balls galloping across green felt cloth in search of a hiding nine ball. In minor league baseball towns most of the games are played at night, and there are few diversions for the ballplayers during the long summer afternoons. There are movies, limpid blondes with strange accents and, usually, a pool hall. So I picked up pool then, as a diversion from my pitching. But as my pitching deteriorated, pool became, instead, something more.
"Shoot a little nine ball?" said the kid.
I looked up as if surprised. "For money?" I said.
"Why not?" he said with a weak smile.
"I don't know. I can't play nine ball very good."
"What kind of game can you play?"
"I don't know for sure. I haven't played much...."
"Listen, I'll play any game you want," he said.
"Chicago. Dollar a point. You spot me the six, nine and break." I smiled as I racked the balls.
Driving home later that evening I fingered the crumpled bills stuffed in my pocket. Fifteen dollars was almost as much money as I made with the mason in one day.
The following morning I put on my work clothes, grabbed my lunch bucket, kissed my wife and drove directly to The Stick. I never lugged another brick for the mason and became instead a regular of Mort Berger's emporium. Like the others, I came partly to make some easy money. Mostly I came because the excitement and easy camaraderie helped me forget, for the time, an abortive baseball career. Outside the pool hall it would come back to me, troubling and confusing me, so I found myself spending as many hours as possible within the safe bowels of The Stick. When my wife asked where I was until all hours of the night, I told her I'd begun working overtime for the mason.
In recent years I have begun to wonder whether any of us would have spent so much time at The Stick were it not for Mort Berger. Without him The Stick would have been a dispirited place. Berger was the first adult to treat many of the regulars as equals. He introduced them to a thousand new delights: pill pool, jack-up, stud poker. Jack Daniel's whiskey, races at the Big A and stag movies at his home. The fascination was not so much with those delights but with the manner in which they were presented. For example, Berger played pool disgracefully. He was always talking or dropping his stick when someone was shooting a money ball; he was always "accidentally" moving a money ball with his stomach or his shirt or his elbow so as to put it in a better position for his next shot; he was always stealing balls we'd made and sticking them in his rack, and generally cheating in so many ways, so outrageously, that much of our entertainment came from watching his antics and trying to catch him in some new ploy that would be the topic of our conversation for the rest of the day. To catch Berger cheating became a game with us. It gave proof of our emerging shrewdness, of our ability to know when we were being hustled.
And no one ever doubted for a moment that Mort Berger was hustling us all. We knew that he organized games of pool so as to get as many shooters as possible on a table and thus assure the management a decent day's income. We knew that he agreed to buy whiskey so that he could charge us a $1 "handling fee"; that he held the poker sessions at his home so he could take 25¢ out of every pot "just for the house, boys"; that he held the stag movies so he could charge an "entertainment fee" for a film whose images flickered and faded so frequently that none of us can remember seeing a single erotic act performed on his gray walls. In short, we knew Mort Berger was using us, but we did not mind paying. Most of us were not sure whether he liked us or simply considered us reliable sources for his own gains.
"Even when you thought Berger liked you," said Hank, his reliable houseman, "you were never quite sure. He would be glad to do little favors for you that always seemed to end up helping him more than you. But there was a point at which he drew the line. The day you asked him for money was the day you ceased to exist."
Soon a debate arose among us as to whether Berger was a fool, a fraud or a genius. Most of the turkeys who lost money to him daily considered him a fool. They had no conception of the skill with which he manipulated them on the pool table. Hank and I felt Berger was more of a fraud than anything else, although we differed slightly as to just how harmless a fraud he truly was. Increasingly, I had begun to see Berger as a somewhat harmful influence on us, although I could never articulate my reasons for such a belief. Hank disagreed. "Who has Berger ever really hurt?" he would say, and I would be forced to admit that I could not cite as an example a single person, or any instance in which Berger had been truly destructive. We both did agree, however, that Berger was certainly not as shrewd as some of the more impressionable regulars, such as Speedo, believed. Speedo was Berger's Boswell. He attributed to Mort's slightest word or deed genius of the highest proportions. "Did you see that?" Speedo would whisper breathlessly as Berger miscued on an easy money-ball shot. "A brilliant move by Mort Berger," he would add, shaking his head in admiration. "Typical of him, though. Typical." And when the next shooter sank that same money ball and Berger was forced to dig into his pocket, Speedo would shrug confidently and say there was a hidden purpose behind Berger's miscue that the rest of us mere mortals could never hope to fathom. "You just wait and see," he would warn.
The principal reason for this confusion as to just who or what Mort Berger was could be attributed to the manner in which he tossed off maxims without the slightest explanation. He left them uncompleted, cloaked in mystery, little half-truths that seemed to mean more than they did. Berger left us to debate their significance without any hint as to whether they were deliberate stratagems or foolish accidents. By far the most mysterious advice he ever imparted to us emerged one day while he was regaling us with stories of the various pool halls he had frequented through the years. "If I learned one thing from those places," he said, "it was this." He paused dramatically. Speedo strained toward him as Berger continued. "Never shoot pool in a strange joint unless you go to the men's room first." And then he left us and went into his office.
"Now what do you think that is supposed to mean?" said Hank. We agreed it was an idiotic piece of advice. It was not until some time later that Hank and I learned to appreciate its hidden brilliance. We were playing in an expensive Chicago game with two beefy, unshaven adversaries in a strange pool hall in upper Fairfield County. We had already lost $10 apiece, although we had not had to pay a cent yet. It had been agreed to settle up at the end rather than after each game. "It would be too messy tossing dollar bills on the table after each game," said Hank. I agreed. Now the situation was becoming very messy, indeed. Hank missed a shot, cursed and then came over to me. "Let's get out of this game," he said. "We're not going to beat these guys."
"We can't quit," I said.
"Why not?" he said.
"Because I don't have any money," I said.
"Oh," he said faintly and collapsed on a stool. His arms went limp, and he was muttering to himself. "They'll kill us," he kept mumbling. "They'll kill us."
I told him not to worry and get worked up. I would think of something. "Like what?" he demanded.
Then I remembered Berger's mysterious advice. "I've got it! Is there a men's room in this place?" He pointed to a door. "Listen, I'm going in there in a minute and I'll climb out the window and head for the car. After I've been gone for about 20 seconds you follow me."
Hank brightened considerably, and then just as suddenly his brow was furrowed in gloom. "What if there's no window?" he said.
"I'll make one," I said, pointing to my cue stick. "If you hear some banging, just put on the jukebox."
There was no window, and the walls were too sturdy to bash with a cue stick. We were forced to return and continue the game, which we salvaged with a closing flourish that brought us even. Then we quit, but not before we vowed never in the future to doubt Mort Berger's wisdom.
Eventually I became thoroughly disenchanted with Berger and life at The Stick. There was a succession of small incidents, each of which compounded the previous until finally I believed Berger to be a truly harmful influence on us all. Because of the way he used us for his own gains, no matter how small they might be, we had taken it as a mark of distinction to be able to use each other in the same way. For example, when we saw how easily Berger destroyed The Worm's pool game with his little irritations, we all took a shot at The Worm in the same way. We humiliated him, really, because in destroying his game we were actually bringing to the surface his moral weakness for everyone to see. Ostensibly, we did this to win his money but I think subconsciously it gave us pleasure to watch him twitch with the pain of his inner torment. Our pleasure came from knowing that we were his superiors, that we were made of sterner stuff, that each one of us had the power to make him squirm like bait on a hook, and so he became a scapegoat through whom we reaffirmed our strength by every day exposing his weakness.
It had also begun to occur to me that Berger was a destructive influence on Hank. When Hank had been thrown out of his home by his parents, Berger encouraged him to begin sleeping in The Stick. He helped reinforce Hank's belief that his parents didn't understand him, rather than, as most adults would have done, encourage Hank to seek a reconciliation. Berger was thinking less of Hank's future or, rather, loss of future, than of The Stick's immediate gain. I could imagine Hank 20 years from then, his skin puffy and chalk-gray, bending over a pool table to rack the balls or sweeping the previous night's dust and cigarette butts out the front door in the morning.
But these incidents in themselves would probably never have disenchanted me completely if it were not for my having been told of Gary's collapse. It had been obvious that Gary's physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. His neck and stomach would be bloated horribly one day and deflated just as horribly the next. He had grown so weak that often he had trouble shooting a cue ball with any authority. One day while he was in a nine-ball game with Len the Worm, he had difficulty straightening up from the table after bending over for a shot. After another shot he fell over backward. He was fully conscious, lying on his back, his eyes wide but unseeing.
"It was a frightening look," said Joe McNeill. "Not a look of fear or pain or anything, but one of recognition, as if Gary was finally face to face with something that had eluded him all this time, and that now he had resigned himself to. Len, Speedo and I helped him up. He said, 'I'd better go home.' We drove him there, and his mother met us at the door. She told us to help Gary over to the couch in the living room and then as we left she said, 'Thank you for bringing my son home.' He died two days later."
The day Joe McNeill told me that story was the last day I spent in The Stick. With Gary's death I finally realized that my existence there, and that of all the regulars, was self-defeating, that it led nowhere, serving only as an escape from problems that could never be solved as long as we shut ourselves up each day inside that room. I blamed Berger partly for Gary's death. Maybe not for his actual death, but for the way he had contributed to Gary's wasting of his life. I felt that if it had not been for Berger's hypnotic influence over Gary, he would have found a more gratifying way to spend his last days rather than spilling them out over a pool table trying to hustle Len the Worm out of a $5 bill that he would never be able to spend.
I left The Stick and enrolled in a nearby college, was graduated some five years later and became a high school English teacher. During my first year as a teacher I noticed a small story in the newspaper one day that told of the closing of The Stick. It had been shut following a raid by federal narcotics agents. By then, the late '60s, drugs had swept into Fairfield County, and it did not surprise me that The Stick had become a hangout for the town's junkies. It seemed to be just the logical extension of a pattern of existence that had been set up years before by Mort Berger. I scanned the story for his name and the names of other regulars I had known but could find none. I did not know those arrested, and I wondered what had happened to Berger. Then I put the paper down and forgot about it.
Probably I would never have thought again of Mort Berger or The Stick if I hadn't run into Hank a year ago. While browsing in a bookstore in Bridgeport, I looked up to see Hank stacking books. He was recognizable even after seven years, heavier, but with the same furrowed, serious look about him, only now it did not seem so brooding and ill-fitting on a man of 26. He recognized me also, and we began to reminisce. I told him that I was a teacher, and he said that he was in his third year of college. He had received his high school diploma while serving in the Air Force, and the government was paying for his college education. I asked him if he ever saw any of the other regulars these days. He said yes. Hambone was a certified public accountant who only occasionally drove down to the Big A to place a modest wager. Joe McNeill was engaged, and Speedo, of all people, was a responsible businessman with a wife and child. "And of course you know about The Rodent," he said with a smile. "I guess Mort Berger would be proud of him today."
The only regular who had not turned out well, he said, was The Worm. "He's a junkie with a very bad habit," Hank said.
"I could have figured that," I said. "I read how The Stick was raided for drugs a few years ago. It's a wonder all the regulars didn't end up like The Worm what with Berger to influence us."
"Oh, Berger wasn't the owner then," said Hank. "He'd gone back to Philly. When he left, the whole place fell apart. No one had any ambition to hustle pool anymore, so they just sat back and started taking dope. That's when I joined the Air Force. If Berger had been there maybe The Stick would never have seen any drugs."
I asked him what he meant, and he told me, "Berger would never have stood for any drugs in his place. It would have hurt business. Junkies don't shoot pool, it doesn't hold any interest for them. When Berger was there he gave us all a common interest. It wasn't much of an interest, hustling pool, but it was better than some of the things we could have been doing. At the time, most of those guys were in pretty bad shape. We were messed up and needed someone like Mort Berger to keep us above water. He kept us occupied just long enough for most of us to straighten out, and those that didn't, like The Worm, well, he held them up as long as he could and when he left they just sank to their own level, that's all. But without Berger he might have gone down a lot sooner, you can bet on that."
"And what about Gary?" I said. "How did Berger help him?"
"Gary, I almost forgot about him. I don't know, unless it was that without pool and Mort Berger, Gary wouldn't have had anything to make him want to get out of bed in the morning." And as Hank spoke, it fell so neatly into place, and I realized he was right. That Mort Berger had played an important part in my life, too, and I owed him not a small debt of gratitude.
"But I don't think that Mort Berger had any idea what he was doing for us," said Hank. "I don't think he could see that far ahead. In fact, if he ever heard us talking about him like this he'd probably say we were lunatics."
And he might be right.