Winging It

by Lou Gaglia
My Grandfather

When I pass my grandfather’s full-length framed photo hanging in the living room, all I see are his hopeful eyes and a confident smile—the same kind of look that, to my surprise, I recently noticed in my high school yearbook photo. They say that my father is a chip off my grandfather’s block, but he never seems to wear any such hopeful, confident expression on his own face. He’s been at the same job for twenty-something years, running a sand and gravel company, and when he gets home at night, there is no grin, no confident expression, so the chip others see must have come from someone else’s block.

Behind my grandfather in the photo are the grounds of the World’s Fair of 1964 in Queens. I don’t know who took the photo, probably my grandmother. My father, a child then, isn’t in the picture, so maybe he stayed home to study sand and gravel.

My Aunt Connie told me that my grandfather had so many jobs that you couldn’t name them all in one day, and most of those jobs were things he’d wanted to try on a whim. He sold coffee machines for a while, but selling wasn’t for him. Then he tried to write a book about sailing, but decided that he’d better sail a while first before writing a book about it. He sailed with a couple of his friends, and they wound up in Nova Scotia and stayed there for six months or more. God knows what they did there, Aunt Connie said. Later he tried to become a musician. He knew a little guitar and a little piano but didn’t know how to read music, and the songs he wrote were all in his head, and if he didn’t play them a million times he forgot them. He formed a band with his old Nova Scotia friends, and they played corny old standards. They flopped, Aunt Connie told me, because none of them could sing a note. Disappointed, he got a job delivering newspaper bundles to stationery stores, and he wrote poems about cranberry bogs and juniper trees. His poems were no hit with editors, although my grandmother said she loved them. My grandmother was a saint for putting up with him, Aunt Connie said to me, and oh how that woman suffered because of his crazy whims. Still, it is only his photo that hangs on our wall, and the only pictures I ever see of my grandmother are in old photo albums in the hallway closet. I asked my mother once why only Grandpa’s portrait hung in the living room, and she said they’d run out of nails, which was no answer at all.

My Father’s Dictum

Because of his twenty years doing the same thing every day, my father has commanded me to find just one job and stick with it. I am only out of high school and into college two years now, so my jobs so far have been here and there, like at the toy store in the mall, and then at the newspaper printing shop, and now at the bookstore in town, part-time, between classes.

“Three jobs in two years,” my father said to me at the breakfast table the other day. “You should have stayed with the newspaper job and worked your way up.”

“I didn’t like the ink, and it was noisy.”

“The ink.” He slurped at the breakfast cookie he’d dunked. “Where are you heading in life?

“Well…”

“See? You don’t know. Get a job. Just get one and stop hanging around.”

My mother was in the hallway bathroom, but she called through the closed door anyway, “He’s getting his degree.”

“In what?” my father answered. “Humanities? What’s humanities going to do for him? What the hell’s humanities anyway?” he went on to me. “The annities of a human? What is that anyway?”

And my mouth was clamped shut, because I didn’t know what the annities of a human were either.

A Hearty Conversation

After roaming around campus and otherwise taking my one class of the day, Confucianism and Taoism, I accidentally met up with Hal in the commons of the student union. Hal has been my friend and mortal enemy since early elementary school, and I groaned a little when he spotted me. Still, after a hearty conversation about the old days, we decided to meet up in town and play some pool—a relaxing game whenever I play by myself or with easygoing people, which is hardly ever. Hal told me he’d become a serious player. He had his own pool stick and everything.

“It’s fascinating,” he said. “I’ve been playing with some really serious players in town here. It’s a thinking man’s game.”

I decided to play pool with him anyway, hoping to take my mind off my father’s dictum.

My New Theory

Before we chalked up, I told Hal all about the old Chinese man who’d been a guest in my Confucianism and Taoism class. Before the old man sat down in front of us, he’d told the class slowly, “Be careful how you sit. It concerns your life…and your death.” The class had laughed and I laughed too, but we didn’t know why. Hal said impatiently that it didn’t mean anything what the old man said, that he only said it to seem wise to a bunch of college kids who were just dying for a wise guy to tell them something wise about sitting and its relation to life and death.

“Could you repeat that?” I said, but he was busy putting home-brought talcum on his hands and accidentally powdering up the table.

Hal decided that we’d play straight pool to two hundred, so I bought a large coffee at the desk.

Early in the game, I sipped and watched Hal take his time setting up each shot, deciding on a course of action, then reconsidering, then going back to his original plan. Meanwhile I thought about the old man in class. He’d been smart―smart for real, I knew, not pretend-smart, because he didn’t irritate the hell out of me the way Hal did. I went to the front desk to ask for a piece of paper, and I wrote down the old man’s “be careful how you sit” comment.

Hal sank ball after ball, but slowly, taking three or four minutes per shot, and I felt myself sinking into my stool, stoop-shouldered and wondering whether I would still be sitting there watching him play pool ten years later, and miss my chance to get married and work with sand and gravel or something.

Hal had me by sixty-five points after an hour or so, and I hadn’t even broken a sweat, so I took out my Lao Tzu book and sneaked peaks at it when it was his turn to shoot. I’d just found a really good Lao Tzu quote when Hal finally missed.

“You’re reading?” he said. I shrugged. “Reading? You’re reading?” he went on, and I stared at him. “You don’t read when it’s someone’s turn.”

“Crime of the century,” I said, putting my book down and picking up my stick.

I sank the next few shots in a row before missing. “Finally got a few,” I said. “I’m catching up, Hal. Only one hundred points away.”

“Sixty-two,” he said after sipping at coffee.

“Oh.”

After he missed an easy one, I sank the next six or seven shots to finish the rack, so he had to rack them up for a change while I chalked up my instrument.

“You’re so lucky,” he said, just his head showing above the table as he threw balls into the rack. “You don’t even set up your shots.”

“I’m down by sixty-something points,” I said. “I’m just winging it now.”

He stood across the table from me. “Winging it. You’ll never catch up that way.” He lifted the rack neatly from the tight set of balls. “In serious pool, you don’t wing it.”

I looked at him for a while, then at the table. I had an angle shot at the leftover two ball, and without thinking I smacked it, but it missed the corner pocket. The cue ball scattered the rest of the balls everywhere.

“See what I mean?” he said. “You left everything open for me.”

I went back to my stool and my coffee and my Lao Tzu book, but before I could crack the book open

I heard Hal curse. He’d missed a chippie into the side pocket.

“Dammit!” he scolded himself. “Brutal. Goddamn brutal. Dammit.”

I hit the next eight or nine in a row before giving way. The one I finally missed left the cue ball alone near the back cushion. Hal stood up quickly.

“You never set up, not at all. Ever.”

“I play fine without setting up.”

“You miss and then leave me nothing.”

“Why should I leave you something? Isn’t that the name of the game?”

“But it’s luck.”

“Yeah…well…that’s my style, whatever.”

I was still down by about fifty points, but he missed his next shot, and the more he missed, the more he cursed. I put the book away and continued to wing it, playing fast, suddenly hot, and always accidentally leaving him nothing. Hal missed again and cursed again, and I hopped off the stool and circled the table. It had become my very own new theory, to wing it and play fast, instead of thinking and playing slow, and when I tied the game and Hal missed his next try, he cursed and raged at himself. The final score was two hundred to one hundred eighty something, and he fumed and didn’t want to say nice game.

While we were paying up at the counter, I saw a set of new pool balls behind the glass and asked the price. I thought of our old broken pool table at home, and I bought the set to give my father for Christmas. I imagined him scolding me for getting him a gift that he couldn’t use because of the broken table, for wasting my money, for not immediately getting a job that will last a hundred years, for not learning carpentry so I could fix the damn table before buying anything, but I bought the balls anyway.

“Maybe my father will like this,” I said to Hal, but his face was set hard and he only glanced at it.

A Fringe Hippie

The Hal incident really soured me, and taking a chance buying a pool ball set for my father made me even sourer.

When I went into town the next morning I accidentally ran into Alan Alvin in the Dunkin Donuts. He’d been a year ahead of me in high school. I didn’t know him that well, and I wasn’t in the mood to be recognized by an easy-going wise guy fringe hippie like him, but when he said a friendly hello and asked if I was interested in attending a meeting that night—with a little support group he was part of at the church—I was surprised enough to look interested.

“Do you give out therapy,” I asked him, “or do you need therapy?”

“We’re just a support group, man,” he said. “It’s cool.”

Then he told me who else was part of the group, and I said, “Sure, I’ll go,” after he mentioned Beth Jensen, among others that I vaguely remembered from high school. They were kind of fringe hippies too, or they were the kids of hippies, maybe, including Beth, and I wondered if they would have understood the old Chinese man who told my class to be careful how they sat.

Alan sipped the last of his coffee before heading out. “See you tonight, man,” he called from the door. “Or I’ll see you in twenty years…in a Dunkin Donuts.”

Winging It

At the church near town the group sat in a circle on the floor, cross-legged, and talked to each other about feelings. I sat there too, but with my knees up, and asked if that was all right. The leader of the group, Karen, said it was cool however I sat.

“That’s cool, thanks,” I said.

I watched Beth Jensen, who listened closely to anyone who spoke, even to Karen and me when we discussed the coolness of sitting. Beth looked at whoever was talking, and she thought about what to say before she responded, or else she listened without saying a word. I remembered why l liked her back in eleventh grade, and forgot why I’d decided not to like her after all. I imagined being married to her, and mentioning that the gutters of our house needed caulk or something, and she listening to me intently. The prospect of it felt good, and I had a warm feeling about the group, even though I had no idea what they were talking about, because I wasn’t really listening.

My rally and victory over Hal seemed so long ago, and the happiness and guilt over destroying him melted away as I listened to the voices of the group. I watched Beth listen to an older woman, so I decided to listen too. The woman was talking about the pointlessness of material wealth or something, so I tuned out again and nudged Karen to ask her where the bathroom was. It was downstairs, and so I wandered around the many rooms down there for a while, until I found a little piano. I sat and played for a while, just nothing, really. I repeated a few notes and then moved onto others, and I tried a few chords and repeated the ones that sounded good. I fooled around, acting like I could really play, just making things up as I went along. It got kind of relaxing after a while, and then I went back upstairs, where a different woman, maybe a little older than me, was talking about her boyfriend’s obsession with tools. I stopped listening to her and watched Beth listen to her instead.

Later, in the vestibule, all six or seven of us shrugged into our jackets to brave the cold weather, and we said goodbye like we’d never see each other again, even Alan Alvin, who promised we’d all either meet the next week, same time, same place, or twenty years from now in a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Beth touched the sleeve of my coat before we walked out, and she asked me if it had been me playing piano downstairs.

“Just fooling around, yeah.”

“It was beautiful, really neat,” she said.

She walked ahead of me on the way out, and I looked at her brown hair and at the way she walked, and there was no longer any girl in the world for me except her. I thought about marrying her, and of us having rice thrown at us from close-up, and of us having kids who all listened carefully to each other and didn’t care about careers, only their feelings. As we reached the cold outside and waved our final goodbyes for the week, I cringed at having bought that pool ball set.

A Planned Event

I turned down two rides, one from Alan Alvin and the other from Karen, who said it was cool if I wanted to walk. Then I discovered—too late to change my mind about the ride—that Beth was riding with Karen too, and I kind of kicked at myself on my way up Church Street.

It was cold and it was dark, and my hands were jammed in my coat pockets, and then I heard the grass rustle and I was tackled at the knees from behind and fell down on the grass, my elbows saving me from a ruined face. I rolled away from someone and bounced up and threw up my arms to block a punch, and then finished the block with a shove to the guy’s face. He and another guy ran away laughing. “Punk,” one of them called as they ran. A third guy was rolled into a ball, holding his side, maybe having landed wrong when he tackled me. I ran past him up the road and stopped in front of the cemetery and looked back. Across the street, two guys were climbing into the back seat of a car, and the third guy was now hobbling across the street toward it. And in the driver’s seat was Hal, his face set hard, the same way it had been set at the pool hall. The car turned around and sped my way, and I hopped the cemetery fence and stood next to a headstone, ready to run for it. The car screeched to a halt.

“Next time, have some goddamn respect!” Hal roared at the top of his voice, and the car peeled out.

A Gift

At home, after I told my father that I’d just been jumped by a sore loser, he took me to visit my grandfather’s portrait.

“You see my father?” he said. “He got the crap beaten out of him a hundred times. You know why? Because he was a wise ass. He was a dreamer. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He wanted things his own way.”

“I keep my mouth shut.”

“Just shut up and listen. He wanted to be an artist, a woodworker, a painter, an inventor, you name it, and he went nowhere. He died young. Heart attack, probably from being a wise ass dreamer and getting the crap beaten out of him and going nowhere in life. Too much pressure…” And his voice broke when he added, “I don’t want that for you.”

“Sorry, Dad,” I said. “I’ll try.” And after a moment I went into my bedroom and brought out the pool ball set in its unwrapped box and set it on the kitchen table. “Early Christmas present, Dad.”

“What the hell’s this?” he said, and he looked at it for a while. “I haven’t played in years.” His eyes filled as he looked down at the set. “And the table’s broke.”

“I’ll fix it,” I said. “I’ve been thinking of taking up woodworking.”

“Bullshit,” he said, but softly, still looking at the set. Then he said, “All right, we’ll give it a try, go to Home Depot tomorrow. How’s that for a plan?”

“Okay,” I said. “But Dad, when we’re ready to play, let’s just play pool, and forget all about setting up our shots.”

“Of course,” he said. “That’s a bunch of bullshit.” He opened the box and picked up the two ball and bounced it in his hand, and I got a little misty myself then, feeling the possibilities inside of me, too many to take in all at once.
Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories (Spring to Mountain Press, 2015), which recently won The New Apple Literary Award for short story fiction. His stories have appeared in Menda City Review, Eclectica, Waccamaw, The Cortland Review, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner—first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Visit him at lougaglia.com

© 2016, Lou Gaglia