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Two dozen Sundays had passed and currents of warm air sweep up from the south, warming Harlem and signaling an unofficial end to winter. Harlemites shed their woolen overcoats as young hearts looked to summer. The parks were once again spotted with baby carriages, kids playing and young lovers occupying blankets off from the walking paths.
After church and tap dance class, the gang had gone home to change, agreeing to meet up at Ray’s poolroom. Hannibal had gotten a part-time job sweeping up and doing odd jobs for Ray. He convinced Ray to allow his friend to hangout on Sunday afternoons. Ray agreed since business on Sundays was slow as a snail walking in molasses.
Ray’s was formerly a furniture story that was sent asunder by the recession of 1910. The only reminder of the former enterprise was sale signs bleeding through the whitewash walls. Ray’s was dingy and dusty with painting peeling and a roof that leaked with just the forecast of rain. There was an old soda box in the corner and photographs of famous faces that had frequented the place, which mostly consisted of prize fighters and jazz musicians.
However, the neighborhood hangout had a brand new jute box and six cool green pool tables that stay busy most night of the week. And, Ray’s offered something that none of the other pool halls offered, a real live fortune teller. Madam Javier, who move north from Louisiana twenty years ago, read palms and lifted spells off the heads of the cursed.
Besides serving spirits, Ray book numbers in the back were one could always find a card game and dice gang in progress. Ray was known for packing a rod under his apron and Louisville slugger behind the counter. He said they for keeping the peace, and there was plenty of peace to be keep. There had been several stabbings and a few famous gunfights.
One night Uptown Red was cleaning house, emptying the pockets of most of the big timers. And, he love to through his good luck back in opponents’ faces. But, few were willing to try him. He had a fast temper and was quick to slice a man with the straight razor that he kept tucked in his pocket. He claimed that he had cut over twenty men, but the crowd that frequented Ray’s could only recall three.
On this rainy night, Tim Blaylock walks in looking to escape a chatty wife and some fussing next door neighbors. They were a couple who had just come up from the Deep South and fought every night at the exact same time. Tim could set his watch to the quarrels. Everyone who knew Tim knew that he keep to himself, minding no one’s business but his own.
Apparently, bothered by the fact, there were no more suckers to be had; Red started in on Tim, trying to goat him in to a game. Tim just shook his head and took another drink. Finally, Tim agreed, but the game had to been for all the marbles. To the oohs and aahs of the room, Tim pulled out a roll of money bill enough to choke a horse and slammed it down on the table.
For the first time that night, Red was lost for words. Someone had finally put up the kind of money he loved to see, and he was caught short. So, Tim made his an offer.
“I have here $400 here and it says you can’t beat me in a single game of eight ball tonight,” he asserted.
“Where you get all that green lettuce, cousin,” Ray asked, playing to the astonished crowd.
“Never you mind where it came from; do when have ourselves a bet or not?”
“Normally, I take your money and wouldn’t look back, but tonight I kinda short.
“Well, I put up this here roll against everything in your pocket, plus you silence.”
“What you talkin bout, Cuz,” Red asked.
“If you win, you keep the roll, but if you lose you will never say another word inside a pool hall for the rest of your life. Now, do we got business here tonight?”
Red just looked at him for a minute before unleashing a belly laugh, enlisting the joviality of the entire room.
“You’re crazy, Cuz. But, crazy or not, I’ll take your money. Rack em.”
Red cracked and several solid balls found homes. He ran the table until he came to the last ball, a duck sitting in the open. Ray had been taunting his adversary after each ball dropped. But, now he’d grown silence, taking bead on the money ball.
“Don’t miss or you’ll never get another shot,” Tim warned, his voice suddenly sounding deadly ominous.
“Don’t worry about me, country. You best be figuring what you gonna tell that wife of yours when I drop this ball.”
“I stand to lose a tidy sum for sure. But you, you stand to lose the thing you prize most, talking loud and saying nothing. And, everyone in here would love you to miss that short, cause everyone body in here is sick of hearing you crow.
Red chuckled confidently as beads of sweat started to form on his brow. As he released his shot, the only sound heard was the tick tock of the clock on the wall. The que ball collided solidly with the last remaining ball and sent it on a true path to the corner pocket. But, as through by divine intervention, the ball curved at the last minute and caught the side and oscillated in front of the hole without dropping.
There was a great sigh from the room as Red drove his fist into the table, drawing a caution from Ray. Then Tim paced around the table chalking his que and studying his first shot. Red started in on him, trying to shake him, but Tim was undaunted. He was a cool as ice when he dropped in the ball and every shot after until all that remained was the cue.
As the clock struck twelve, Ray pulled up and turned to his exhausted and broken opponent and simply extended his hand for payment. Ray grudgingly tossed his bill fold on the table along with his car keys, straight razor, and lucky rabbit foot. A cheer went up as Ray trudged out of the pool hall, never to be hear from again.
Tim would frequent the pool hall every night to nurse a single beer before heading home. No one every brought it up in his presence, but the story soon became the stuff of pool room folklore. And, no one every bother him with the story; but made it a point to keep the noise down in his presence.
Loveboy and Deacon arrived first, and were working on two cold Cokes when Jade and Mandy walked through the door. Jade, after saying hi to Ray, grabbed a pool cues and challenged the boys to a game.
“Now, you know that yo mamma doesn’t want you hanging around no smoky old pool hall,” said Ray, following Jades movement around the room.
“You’re a sweetie, Mr. Ray, for not saying anything,” she responded, her tone dipped in honey.
Just then Hannibal entered the room from the store room. “No worries, boss, the girls here can keep a secret. What happens in this here pool room stays in this here pool room. Isn’t that what you always say?”
“If you value your job, it damn sure better not get back to Miss high society. And, make sure you all clear out when it begins to pick up.” Then, wiping his hands on his apron, Mr. Ray walked off.
“Thanks, Hannibal,” said Mandy, with Loveboy raising the Coke bottles in the air. “Here to Hannibal,” said Deacon. Jade went a step further and came around the table and planted a playful kiss on the side of the face of the visibly bashful Hannibal. Hannibal wiped his face as Jade dance around the pool table.
Just then, Clayton burst through the door with Mooch on his heels. “The shark is here now. If anyone thinks that they can be me, put your money were your mouth is,” he said, pulling a small roll of singles from his pocket and waving it under his friends’ noses.
“Who did you kill to get that,” asked Loveboy
“Didn’t have to kill anybody,”
“Me and Clayton started working for the superintendent over on 136th Street.
“One day we gonna own the building,” added Mooch.
“Yeah, but how much of the work is Clayton doing,” asked Jade, half-jokingly.
“Excuse me, princess Jade, but everyone is not born with a silver spoon. Some of us have to work if we want one,” Clayton fired back.
“Yeah, so where’s Mooches money,” asked Jade.
“Oh, don’t worry, Jade. Clayton is holding my money so I won’t spend it on candy and ice cream sodas.” Jade and Mandy exchange curious looks and started to giggle.
“You women should learn to stay out of a man’s business. Stick to something that you’re good at like cooking and sewing,” Clayton remarked.
“Well, I knew something else that we’re good at, Mr. Rockefeller,” said Jade.
“Oh, like what, taking care of a man,” asked Clayton, offering some cool skin to Mooch and Loveboy.
“No, that not what she’s talking about Clayton, she’s talking about billiards,” said Mandy.
“What’s billiards, Mandy Candy” asked Mooch.
“That a rich people name for pool, you idiot,” fired Clayton. “That sound like a challenge if I ever heard one.”
“Why don’t you guys play for pennies like when we play cards, interrupted Deacon?
“Are you going talk or play? We only got the place until sundown,” Hannibal reminded them.
Look for Sunday Best, coming this winter. In the meantime pick up a copy of American Messiah, Secret of the Nile Valley or Between Shadow and Smoke.