Eleven in the morning and smoke hangs like a spirit over bright green felt, glows under long, low lights in the pool hall. Table No. 1 at Cue 'n Chalk of Arlington, and on an August day when the heat is drawing half-moons beneath shirt sleeves, the air inside is cool, and Wes Lefler is stepping to the table with short, quick little steps, approaching it kind of sideways, bringing up his cue as he moves.
There being only three billiard parlors listed in the Northern Virginia Yellow pages, Wes Lefler, 53, has driven all the way from Springfield. He drives more than 30 minutes several times a week just to play pool, to hear the gentle click, plunk of the deuce ball in the corner pocket.
Cue 'n Chalk has been Lefler's spot for 15 years. His companions are here, too, men like himself who come to this close, nicotine-scented room with blond paneled walls and orange carpeting because it gives them something to do. Lefler is a bricklayer, owner of AAA Masonry, a contracting company he runs from a poker table in his rec room. Sometimes he employes as many as 20 people. Lately he employs two, himself and another, and even they haven't had much work.
Today Lefler plays with Danny Slane, also a bricklayer. A real estate man shoots at one of the other six tables. A plumber sits on one of the chairs lined against the wall, but he hasn't played much since he fell off a roof. He just comes in and watches, as does Don Fitzgerald, a white-haired waiter with a broken knee and six-to-eight more weeks of recovery.
Lefler leans over the table, his left hand forming a bridge on the felt-covered slate, forefinger resting against thumb, a sort of OK sign wrapped around the smooth maple shaft of his cue. It comes apart for storage in a naugahyde bag kept behind the seat of his tan Ford pickup. In his right hand he cradles the abalone-inlaid butt, fingers delicately curled, graceful but sure, like those of a violinist on a bow.
This is the same way he learned close to 50 years ago at Vernon Honeysucker's Pool Hall in Albemarle, N.C., except that he lost the tips of his bottom three fingers of his left hand installing a chimney a few summers back. The day he came home from the hospital, his wife racked the balls in the rec room to see if he could still shoot.
He could, and still does, though he never had that killer instinct, never could find that groove that Minnesota Fats and Wimpy Lassiter had, that way of making the cue ball dance and then rest on command, as if it was tied to a string.
Wes Lefler's brother had it. His brother stroked like his arm was tracked on oiled bearings, and each muscle of his body seemed alert, sensitive and sure and aware how every ball would roll, of how, exactly, every shot must be made. Wes never shot like that. Never practiced enough, or maybe it was the fuzzy way he saw things through his right eye, the sighting eye. Wes Lefler's brother was a shark. Wes Lefler is a minnow.
But at Cue 'n Chalk he plays Table No. 1. Seniority, mostly, a station reached across the expanse of years before video games, when Paul Newman as Fast Eddie was on the screen and Weenie Beanie was in Shirlington, setting up trick shots down at the Jack and Jill Cue Club before it closed. Years of 72-hour games, of $10,000 exchanged between the chalk and talc stained hands of traveling hustlers.
Lefler and Slade play for a friendly dollar a game, the game being one-pocket, the stakes not for rent or Cadillacs but for whittling hours. Win or lose maybe $5 in six hours. Table No. 1 is also the table clear on the other side of the room from the pay telephone, where teen-agers sip Slurpees through little straws that have a spoon on one end.
Wes Lefler's pocket is the left foot, the pocket at the bottom of the 4 1/2-by-9-foot table, the pocket wayyy downtown. His competitor, Slane, has the right foot, and the first one to sink eight balls will win. So far, Slane has sunk five, Lefler, one.
Now Lefler is lining up a bank shot, readying to finesse the white cue off the right rail and bring it back to tap the red three, make it click, plunk into the pocket. The leather tip of his cue is poised a few inches from the cue ball, supported by three tipless fingers, and a muscle stands atop his forearm, tensed and tapered in a forest of black and gray hairs. Thick brows shadow his eyes, the bad right one that he squints, the left one that is wide, and thick cheekbones shadow his cheeks, bordered by silver sideburns he combs back gracefully over his ears. He strokes, the cue ball rolls, banks off the rail, taps the red three, hits another rail, taps the red three again, deflects it from the pocket.
"Got-damn," Wes Lefler whispers, and retrieves his filterless Camel from the edge of the table. Through the smoke, his voice comes out thick-lipped and graveled, like a country and western singer. He smiles.
"If I was here to win money, I woulda been gone a long time ago."