Not too Hard, Not too Soft

I stood, silently looking at the pool table. I had three balls left, and so did my father. His balls were in perfect position for him to win on his next turn. I was sixteen and had played hundreds of games with my father. I could count the number of times I had beaten him on one hand. And I could have been missing most of my fingers.

As I surveyed the table, my heart sunk. My balls were in good positions, with one exception. Between the cue ball and my best chance of winning, one of my father’s balls—the fourteen—sat smirking at me. If only the ball wasn’t there. I was convinced I could win the game.

And then I remembered something I had seen on Wide World of Sports. I had never tried such a shot, and if it failed, it could be a disaster. Not only would I lose the game, I might ruin the pool table. Which was worse, I wondered?

I slowly moved around the table, looking at the balls from different angles. Yes, I thought. If I can execute this shot, I can win the game. And then I could die a happy boy. And if I failed and ruined the table, I’d likely die a very unhappy boy. That night.

Risk versus reward is not an idea that is usually taught to teenage boys. At that age, risk is never something that is considered. Only the reward. And so, I began to think how I would execute the shot of a lifetime.

I took a stance behind the cue ball. My father said, “You know that you can’t strike my ball first. If you do, any balls you make won’t count.” I nodded. Clearly, my father did not know what I had in mind. If he did, he would have likely taken the cue stick from my hands and beat me with it. My father treasured that pool table, and if he had any clue that I might do something to risk it, he would not be happy.

I placed my left hand on the table, six inches behind the cue ball. I slowly formed a vee with my thumb and forefinger. As I rested the cue stick into the vee, I said a silent prayer to a God I did not believe in. But at that point, I had more trust in God than I did in my ability to execute this shot.

I can’t believe I’m going to try this, I thought. There is no way I’m going to be successful the first time I try this shot. I backed away and stood.

My father took a swig from his beer and chuckled. “A blocking shot, huh. It better be perfect.” He thought that I was going to nestle the cue ball up next to the fourteen ball and make it impossible for him to have a good shot on his next turn. But if I hit the cue ball too hard, it would move the fourteen ball away and he’d have a clear shot. It did have to be perfect, and I’d never had the delicate touch such a shot required.

I chalked my cue again and applied more talcum powder to my hands. I couldn’t keep my hands dry, and a single drop of sweat could ruin the slide of the cue stick. I needed absolute control to execute this shot.

“This is a Goldilocks shot,” my father said.

“What do you mean?” I asked quizzically.

“It can’t be too hard. It can’t be too soft. It has to be just right.” My father chuckled.

“You don’t think I can do it, do you?” I didn’t know if my father was trying to psyche out, but I wasn’t going to let him do it. He shook his head and took a swig from his beer.

I resumed my position, placing my left hand on the table. Boy, is he going to be surprised, I thought as I slowly pulled the stick back with my right hand. I can do this, I thought. No, I will do this. And then I rapidly thrust the cue stick forward.

I’m not sure which was louder: the sound of my stick striking the cue ball or my father’s gasp when he realized what I was doing. I had to hit the cue ball just above the table’s felt, and I had to do so with great force to make it jump over the ball that blocked my desired path. The slightest error would tear the felt and send me to an early death.

The cue ball jumped into the air and hit the table on the other side of the fourteen ball. It struck the six ball, which then slowly rolled toward the corner pocket. My father began clapping, and as the ball got closer and closer to the pocket, his clapping got louder and more frequent. When it fell into the pocket, he cheered and gave me a hug.

My father stepped away and walked to the refrigerator. That night was the first time in a very long time that I beat my father in billiards. And it was the first time he ever bought me a beer.

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