We kids moaned that playing at night required night-vision goggles. Tables in gentlemen’s clubs often have a canopy lamp hanging overhead, replete with tassels or Tiffany glass, dropping a generous pool of light onto the felt. Dad likely thought them garish or pretentious or too much in some way, so we were reduced to six feeble pot lights in the ceiling, which illuminated the cigarette smoke hanging in the air all very cinematically but not the other end of the table, as it receded into darkness 12 feet away.
As a player, Dad was tough to read. To watch him lazily whacking, or half-heartedly scooping, or just jabbing at the ball, more like a gardener with a spade or a street sweeper with a broom, you’d take him for a rank amateur. His stance: what stance? His style: not for him Euclidean geometries, the deep screw, the cocked-hat, the stun-run-through/massé combo. He could barely be bothered bending over to rack ’em up, preferring us to do the work, the way he’d send us to the cobwebbed cellar for firewood on wintry nights, while he lay in front of the hockey.
But growing up as he did around the Main in Montreal, he honed his skills early – and then, at the Mount Royal Billiards Academy and the Rachel Pool Hall on St. Lawrence, while still in high school, graduated to hustler. The bottom line is, no one could best the man’s ability to hook. His repertoire may not have been wide, but that guy could, and with a chuckle while he was at it, exile the cue ball to the remotest regions of the table, lose it in a thicket of coloured balls, leave it teetering on the precipice of a pocket or resting snugly, as if glued, against the bank. Every time, without fail.
“Just winning was not enough for him,” says my brother Jake. “It was more about the way he won – he preferred that it was really miserable for you, the opponent. Part of that was really dragging it out. Another was making sure that you thought there was hope, when there was none.
“He’d say, ‘All you have to do is snooker me once or twice and sink all the colours and you’ll win!’ I cannot recall how many times I led into the colours, and then he’d awaken and snooker me six times.”
“He loved being with his boys,” Mum recalls, “but he was fiercely competitive. He didn’t care whether you were 4 years of age. The world was a competitive place and you weren’t going to win just like that, that easily. If you won, then you deserved to win, because you had played very well and he had lost. Simple as that.”
When we kids swore and threw things, so bitterly surprised yet again at our own incompetence, he’d stand there awaiting his go like his mind was half-elsewhere. Which it usually was (on something worth the sweat, like his new novel). His only real concern was that we might rip the felt.
Or he’d say, “Look! Through the window. There’s a loon!”
And having distracted you, move the cue ball over for a better view of the black.
My sister Emma was like me, a stickler for the rules, a student of the arcana, the underlying Zen of it all, keeping faith that inner discipline and attention to the finest of details would one day bring victory.
“I’d do the technical too. Everything: the chin, the stance,” she said to me. “But Dad was like Hurricane Higgins – his head bobbing up immediately after the whack. Then I’d carefully line up my shot and he’d be terrorizing me from behind going, ‘Shoot! Shoot!’ and I’d collapse in giggles and muck up the shot.”
Another of the impediments to make a shot, we discovered, was putting away too much beer or, at that Boxing Day tournament, Mum’s most excellent chili con carne. The continual bowing action exerts an accordion effect on the gut, resulting in epic flatulence and no little embarrassment.