King James Rempe, the hellhound of pool, stalked the table with a werewolf's hypnotic stare, his eyes at last alive, his mane bristling as though a full moon had finally broken through the midnight clouds.
"What's the longest run of this tournament?" hissed King James, the greatest pool shooter.
"Hundred balls," whispered Weenie Bean Staton, director of the World Series (See POOL, D8, Col. 1> of Pool that runs nightly through Sunday at Arlington's Jack & Jill Cue Club.
"What's Wimpy got me by?"
"A bunch. You need 101 to shoot the lights out."
"Yeah?" Rempe's eyes lighted. "What're the odds on that?"
"Ain't none, kid," said Staton, looking at the almost impossible safety shot that Luther (Wimpy) Lassiter, seven times World (Champ, had left Rempe. "You're not even on the board."
Rempe looked at the cue ball, nudged perfectly into the mouth of the pocket, a millimeter from the hole's edge, and far from the clustered balls at the opposite end.
"Look's like I better not let ol'Wimpy shoot again."
This was not a trick shot. It was harder than those cosmetic four-rail combos they rattle in on the talk shows.
This was a pool shot. Eight feet of green felt separated Rempe from the single stripped ball at which he had a prayer. He would have to jack the back end of his ivory Palmer cue up to shoulder height to gouge the cue ball out of its hiding place.
That would give the white ball not only a certain swerve because of the transfer of english, but an element of unpredictable, but an element of unpredictable masse action as well. In addition, that exaggerated english also would make the object ball deviate.
Rempe ran his hand over an invisible spot at mid-table. Every felt cloth has a nap, a grain. This onw, he knew, ran counterclockwise around the rails and needed smoothing.
As he paced around his 9-foot-by-4-and-a-half-foot universe, Rempe worried about the humidity. It was high. Lassiter liked that. "Wimpy wins when it's wet," they always said.
The damper the air, the tougher every shot became. "Throw shots" couldn't be thrown as much, soft cushions became harder, making each ricochet larger and harder to control. And, worst of all, the pockets tightened. Shots rattled and stayed out. Wimpy loved that. The tougher the better. Knowledge . . . that was the name of straight pool . . . decades of minutiae.
Finally, Rempe, the most deliberate, meticulous and intense of players, fed the computer every germane detail that he had learned since he was ago six.
Rempe set up vital break shots, straight balls after this one. He had been off his stick all night, his stroke as rusty after a three-month layoff as the color of his mustache. But he had felt the oil seeping back into his elbow for the last few racks.
"If I make this one," he said to Stator: as he bent over, dusting talcum on his bridge hand. "Wimpy can break his stick and pack it."
It was bravado, but is was also prophecy.
For the next silent hour Rempe ran. Lassiter looked. Despite his perfection, Rempe (half Lassiter's 60 years) was not himself. Sometimes the devil cue ball stayed on its imaginary string. Sometimes it wandered.
Rampe set up vital break shots, then messed them up and had to manufacture others, always planning far ahead, often as much as 14 shots.
Before Rempe missed, Lassiter had long since packed his ancient leather, tack-studded cue case, adjusted his black tuxedo, and called it a night. The game was over. Rempe ran on.
When, after 168 straight balls the 169th shot kicked out, Rempe gave a little look to Larry Lisciotti, one of the seven players in the tournament, that said, "We know I missed that on purpose. These people aren't going to go home until I do. And I'm tired."
"A run like that means nothing to me," said Rempe. "I'd rather run 30 and play every shot right. That was just willpower, improvisation, stubborness. I decided it was time to stop playing like a dog."
A crowd of fewer than 50 people in the darkened 200-seat pit had watched the match between Lassiter and Rempe, probably the two most dominant and colorful players in the last quarter century.
"Ninety per cent of the people here had no idea what I was doing," said Rempe. "For an hour-and-a-half I was in a trance, like a note. If a bomb had gone off, I wouldn't have heard it."
This virtuosc performance in the back room of a pool hall had been accomplished for the sake of perhaps a dozen knowing eyes, the two most important being his.
"There is only one weakness in my game," said Rempe with bitterness oceans deep. "Desire . . . mine is almost dead.
"I worked since I was a kid for one goal - to find the perfect stroke. I found it. I became the best in the world. I reached my goal. And no one cared.
"In the last six years I've won 35 tournaments, and nobody knows my name.
"People say, 'Rempe. Rempe. Never heard of you. Can you beat Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi?'
"I tell 'em, 'Sure. How 'bout with one hand?' And they look at me like I'm lying."
Rempe is fighting ghosts - wealthy ghosts who don't fight back.
"Mosconi is an old man who hasn't played in 25 years and who still has the gall to say he's the best in the world. It's like Joe Louis saying he's still the champion.
"Mosconi has done more than any man to hold the game back. He won't play and he won't shut up. He just promotes his name and makes money off equipment endorsements.
"At the U.S. Open in 1969 he got twice as much to commentate for TV as the winner got for winning.
"Fats can't run two. Fats can't even make his simple trick shots any more. He's a joke . . . a rich joke."
Pool's young lions are carnivores who rip each other's hides at very opportunity. There simply isn't enough flesh on the carcass of their wounded sport to go around.
"We're up against phantoms," said Lisciotti, "People hear about Mosconi running 500 balls, back in the days when the table were bigger (and easier), the pockets were bigger and the balls were clay (no transference of english to contend with). People come to see us run our 80 or 100 and they'd say, 'These guys are bums.'"
The years trickle past for the likes of Rempe and Lisciotti, and the pool bonanza they keep foreseeing never comes.
"All we have to do is look at Wimpy to know where we're all going," says Lisciotti. "His nerves are shot.
Every pressure he ever swallowed within himself has come back out to the surface now. He's just a mass of tics and twitches.
That vision of a tissue-thin present and an unworthy future haunt all the turning 30 studs in this tournament - Rempe, Lisciotti and their pro buddy Mike Carella.
"There's nothing in the game now," says Carella. "If you won every tournament, you'd make maybe $30,000 a year."
Once, when they were young, the game was simply for them all.
"We were the only kids in our high schools with a diamond ring, a car a roll of hundred dollar bills," says Rempe. "We said, 'This is it.'
"For two years I played 10 hours a day, never missed a day. The story's almost identical for all of us. We all hit the road when we were 16."
"I thought I was Robin Hood," said Carella. "We followed each other through the small towns like a hustlers' caravan. When Rempe was 16, he went through the South like a cyclone. Everywhere I went people said, 'This kid Rempe just cleaned out the sherift, the mayor and the judge. This town's empty.'"
"I once played the mayor of Winewood. Okia., for 3 1/2 days," says Rempe "He tapped out (went broke) four times. But he wouldn't let me leave town until he got a fresh stake. He said if I left the pool hall with his money, he'd have me arrested for not gambling."
Now these old pirates of the highway are turning 30 and, like the song says, no sooner do they hit the road again than they find themselves "running on empty."
"You're out there two weeks," says Carella, "and you say, 'Please, somebody get me out of here.'"
"You know that sooner or later, you'll book a loser."
That catch-all phrase "booking a loser" can mean shipping yourself to Tap City by spotting a sucker too much weight (handicap). Or it can mean death.
"I had to hear that friends of mine like Cuba Joe and One-Eye Teddy had been killed in shootouts before I got the message," said Lisciotti.
"When you're a kid you don't believe that if a guy shoots you, that you'll die," said Rempe. "Until you see it."
"I owned my pool room," says Lisciotti. "I had to sell it. I just got sick of being around it every day."
With the years, Rempe's dreams - and those of the handful of other players almost his equal - have changed.
They fantasize about the old days - 30, even 100 years ago. Tournaments in hotel ball rooms with tuxedos, balconies, dead silence, the cream of society holding its breath.They memtion the strange names of ancient pool lovers - Twain, Mozart.
"In England, in Japan, we're gentlemen', says Carella. "Here we're bums."
The scenario of the dream is always the same. A wealthy TV sponsor starts the ball rolling. An honest lawyer organizes the warring, factionalized players. A TV comentator coaches the public in the intricacies of a game.
"The boom's not coming. It's further away ever year," says Carella."No," snaps, Rempe. "I won't reach my peak until I'm 35. I say it's coming. I wasn't born too soon."
For now, little affairs, the one this week at Weenie Beanie's, are an excuse of several of the best in the world - Irving Crane and Steve Miserak also are on hand - to take the cueout of moth balls.
It's 2 a.m. in the Jack & Jill, the hour things liven up, the husler's hour. The sharks eye one another.
"The game of pool among the general public has never been healthier," says Staton. "The table manufacturers say 22 million people a year play regularly. This parlour has been open 24 hours a day every day for the 11 years since we opened. We don't even have a front-door key.
"This pool hall has never been broken into."
Rempe, the King of a game that is in danger of vithering on the vine, smiles to himself. "A pool hall," he says, "is harder to break out of."