Shooting Pool in the Mental Hospital
Because memory is not the hovering bank shot that stops at the lip
of the pocket and will not fall,
but the scatter of balls when the cue ball strikes, rolling
hurried and random as roaches
scrabbling for cover in the just-lit kitchen of a greasy spoon, it’s hard
to say how we will read what lies there
once everything settles. The same memory that once struck mirth
might flame in unexpected sorrow,
like walking again into the roadside chicken joint the night before
As soon as we walked in, a woman behind the counter began to scream
that only queers and junkies
came in there and she was sick of it. She slammed into the back, the door swinging
in her wake and did not come back
though we could hear her yelling. A girl who wouldn’t look at us brought our chicken
and we drove on,
wondering through full mouths what could have triggered the woman’s rage.
The night before,
loaded on mescaline, it had taken us an hour to shoot one rack of balls
from the table.
Everywhere we looked, impossible angles, endless sprawl of green
possibility, the way
things should look when you are nineteen and unable to see beyond
the next hour.
Our bad shooting and laughter began to draw dark looks from men betting both
money and pride, both
scarce in a town bitten in half by recession. And in two months
I’d seen the owner and his son
beat customers so thoroughly ambulances were called. One of us scratched
the eight ball and we left
for a place quieter and darker, somewhere our madness could find a corner
* * *
Years later, that same friend, by now a believer in the enlightenment
suffering could bring,
was ambushed by a mix of blood and rogue neurons, and the world
became his church,
all matter mantled in light that fell slow and rich, like a painting
of light. Everywhere he looked
waited a new place to worship, a new soul to bless. Such ecstasy will not
walk free long.
A few nights after I saw him praying on a church’s front lawn,
he was delivered
to a hospital and his pacing brain was slowed by drugs whose names sounded
like the gods of a faith
I’d never heard of before. When we were allowed to visit—this was
a charter hospital,
not a lockdown facility—my then-wife and I drove out to see him. I tried
not to taste the fear
I’ve always had of not being allowed to leave such places, the staff
and patients reading
what I would not say, shuttling me off to rooms where I would spend days
yelling for someone
to listen. But we sat a while in the cafeteria, then walked halls so calm
I almost forgot
the misdirection bubbling under my heart. In the rec room, my friend suggested
we shoot pool
for a new car. The sticks were warped to parentheses, and the twelve ball
was missing, but we racked them up
while my wife played cards with a woman who spoke the whole time of
her fear of devil-worshipers.
And there, in that place that housed the God-touched and the devil-frightened
I shot the best pool I ever have,
the madness of those rooms conspiring with my body to bring me some touch
of earthly if not divine grace.
* * *
There are no martyrs in pool halls. Or standing over boiling pits
of grease in chicken joints.
Sooner or later, the cost of what you sign up for becomes clear.
And neither rage nor madness helps.
And if you had looked into the room that day and saw two men
for imagined stakes, could you have said which was believed to be mad
and which could pass for sane?