Strong was a lot of things. He fought Golden Gloves in high school, and tried to get Teale to fight, but Teale didn’t like getting the shit kicked out of him by some skinny black kid at the Salvation Army gym in downtown Kansas City. He also hated sparring with Strong, because, though they were friends, Strong was a serious fighter and didn’t pull any punches with him. Teale understood this, and didn’t want to appear less than manly, but he said no to any more boxing. Back in the 50’s they didn’t wear protective headgear and the club refs didn’t really care what went on with the kids.
Besides the pain, Johnny Teale didn’t want his face changed around too much, as girls seemed to like it the way it was. Maybe a little scar on his cheek, or over an eye would be neat, but he could probably get that from the crazy way Strong drove his 1941 Chevy. At least he wouldn’t have to experience the dry mouth and the trembling knees that pre-fight jitters gave him. All the kids his weight and age at the gym were bad news. Strong would coach him before the one-minute rounds but, once in the ring, he was pre-psyched and ended up with his gloves in front of his face just trying to keep from being punched in the nose.
Lee Strong was also a Pinkerton his senior year in high school. He called it being a pink. It was kind of like being a private detective. He and Teale would go to one or several of the Katz Drugstore chain after school, and time the soda jerks after ordering iced tea or cokes. They could get hamburgers, too, or BLTs. All Strong had to do was keep the receipts and Pinkerton paid them. Strong kept a record of how long the Katz employee took, how they acted, if they loitered or ignored customers, that sort of thing. Teale couldn’t believe that such a job was available. Sit around and eat and drink and if anyone was nasty to you, you had them. In the 1950’s this was forward thinking.
Strong also plied his trade in other departments; he even bought Trojan rubbers from a woman employee in the prescription drug area although they didn’t require a prescription; they just kept them out of sight, like Playboy magazines.
“You’re nuts!” Teale said.
“What about them?” Strong said, just as loud. Both the transaction and the answer flustered the lady behind the counter, Teale could tell. He knew better than to say that to Strong, as that was his stock rejoinder, and it always embarrassed him, as it did now. Strong grinned as he paid the lady.
Strong’s eyebrows were kind of like upside-down Vs and they gave him a mischievous look, or, at times, a rather amazed demeanor. The tipoff that he was not someone to fool with was his build. He could be pretty scary, looking at some would-be adversary with that amazed look, as though he was thinking, ‘you really want to fuck with me?’ And he did kind of invite attention.
Today, he was wearing some weird kind of pants that reminded Teale of sailor pants. They had a panel in front with buttons on either side and they were tight around the thighs. They even had bell bottoms. Shit, Strong could wear a purple tutu if he wanted but Teale wished he wouldn’t wear this getup when he was with him. He could tell that people were looking at those pants. No back pockets and tight around the butt.
If he’d known he was wearing them today, he’d have found some excuse not to be seen with him, but it was too late; Strong had picked him up in his Chevy as he was walking home from an impromptu saturday baseball game in the park near his house. He got stuff like those pants in stores around 18th and Vine where the blacks shopped. Sometimes they went to record stores down there and got used 45rpm records for a dime that were wild. One of the songs kept running through his mind, Drinkin’ Wine Spodeeodee by Stick McGhee and His Buddies. Wild. Stuff you’d never hear on the radio. Maybe Strong was part black or something; he really seemed to like their talk and clothes and all. Thing is Teale was immediately attracted to the music. It had…danger in it, or something, power maybe. It had drive. They called it rhythm and blues. Some of it was like the new Rock and Roll, but more primal somehow. He wondered if liking the rhythm was a flaw or something. His old man wouldn’t tolerate him hanging around that part of town. His old man said they weren’t fully real people even. Teale didn’t believe that, but he didn’t say so, not at home.
Anyway, Strong was one of them, it seemed, when they went down there. They knew him, called him ‘strongman,’ and he called them ‘blood.’ They even went there at night, to Charlie’s Blue Room on session night, Thursdays, when musicians from the audience would get up and play, some of them white people. This was KC in 1957. Things were happening. It was a restless time for Teale. Strong was cool and at home wherever he went. But he was unpredictable. After they left the Brookside Katz store, and were driving through a residential neighborhood, he gunned the ’41 Chev and started knocking over garbage cans that were on the street, left there by the pickup people.
“You’re nuts!” Teale shouted, laughing, hanging onto the dashboard.
“What about ’em?” yelled Strong, aiming at another garbage can. After hitting eight or nine of them, sending them crashing and rolling into yards and up on sidewalks, he suddenly became docile, looking both ways at a stop sign, driving off slowly like an old lady.
Teale loved cars, even that Chevy, and couldn’t understand why anyone would dent a fender just jacking around. It made no sense to him. If he had the car, he’d lower it, put dual smittys on it and primer it for a start. It wasn’t a bad car, even though he was a Ford guy. He planned to buy a used Ford V8 flathead when he turned sixteen, a couple of months away.
“You know what a superman is?” Strong was looking straight ahead as he drove.
“Yeah, Clark Kent goes into a phone booth and…”
“No, no,” Strong interrupted, only mildly annoyed. “Ever read Nietzsche?”
“We don’t have that yet.”
“And you won’t, either. You have to go to the library. Look up ‘existentialism,’ too. Look up ‘experiential philosophy.’ Rimbaud.”
“Sure thing, Strong. Next time I’m there.”
“Well, you need to live. You need experience if you’re to rise above the proletariat. So, we’re going to experience a robbery.”
“Not me, man. That’s wrong.”
“Depends. If we rob hoods, it’s not wrong. We’re only gonna do it once, for the experience. You have to experience everything, to really be alive.”
“Biggs Poolroom, downtown on twelfth street. You know it?”
“It’s across from the penny arcade. We’re going to go case it, right now.”
“But not rob it, right?”
Strong didn’t answer. He just shifted into a lower gear and slammed his foot on the accelerator. When he turned a corner, the tires squealed and Teale was thrown against his door. This was a new one for Teale. Strong often talked about different philosophies and things that were above Teale, the atomic bomb, infinity, time, light speed and interplanetary travel. But those things were just things to muse on, not put into practice.
This experience thing, where did it come from? It seemed Strong was the most experienced high school senior he knew. Why did he have to rob a pool hall? That made no sense at all.
He’d go along if all they were doing was casing it; that appealed to his sense of adventure and gave him a spine shiver of excitement. It was sort of like when he was a little kid hunting communists, spying on neighbors in his grandmother’s old part of town one summer and watching the McCarthy hearings on the black and white TV. Maybe he’d make a good Pinkerton.
“Just casing this place, right?” he asked Strong.
“Right,” he said as he shifted down for a red light.
The pool hall was on a lower level than the street. Strong and Teale descended concrete stairs to the door. An old pawn shop sign with three globes, that hung above the door, had been adapted by painting numbers on the globes, and a sign beneath it said Biggs’ Billiards. They entered tentatively, their eyes adjusting from the brightness outside, to the semidarkness of the long, largely unadorned room. It was cooler in here though stale with tobacco smoke. Ceiling fans moved slowly. Billiard and pool tables were spaced all the way to the back with green porcelain shaded lamps hanging above them from plain cords that were fed by a conduit that ran along the middle of the high, tin-paneled ceiling.
Two tables near the front were occupied; one by a couple of young toughs in their twenties, with cigarettes dripping from their lips, who eyed the boys with contempt, the other by two businessmen in rolled-up shirtsleeves and loosened ties, whose hats and jackets hung on hooks on the wall.
There were wooden benches in tiers as though for spectators, on one wall. An uneven row of photos hung on the wall above the risers of bleachers.
The man perched at the counter, on a high stool, Biggs himself probably, wore a white shirt with pale raised stripes, buttoned at the neck, and suspenders. He was short, bulky, and his unusually black hair was plastered back with pomade or some out-of-fashion substance that made him look 40’s gangsterish, to Teale, who thought Biggs looked dangerous.
Strong said, “How much?”
Biggs folded his arms across his chest and nodded, almost imperceptibly, at a cardboard sign to his right, said out of the corner of his slash mouth, “Snake it’d bit ya.”
The hand-lettered sign said, “Straight pool, 25c hr. Billiards reserved, no play, pay up on leaving, no chg less than 1/4 hr. last hr.”
Strong walked past the man. Teale followed, nodding at the man who ignored him. Teale stopped to read inscriptions on some of the photos that hung on the wall, noting that Minnesota Fats had played here. Then he was jostled by one of the toughs who was walking around the table, looking at his shots.
“You looking for trouble, dickhead? Guess what. Here it is.” The guy stood his cue against the fat outer rail, and shoved Teale into the wall. He then flicked his cigarette at Teale’s face but Teale instinctively slapped it away. Before anyone could do anything else, Biggs was between them, surprisingly fast.
“Settle up and get out. We don’t put up with tough guys here.” Biggs had the young man in a choke hold and was dragging him toward the door. At the counter he told him a sum and was paid by the now shaken young man who spilled some change and bills on the counter and said, “Jeez, Tony, I didn’t mean to…the kid fucked up my shot…”
“Out. Don’t make me hurt you.” Biggs resumed his seat. Teale thought he looked like a bullfrog on a toadstool. The other player quietly set his cue in a rack and followed his companion out the door. The remaining players continued their game, talking in low tones. A closer look at them informed Teale they were not businessmen, as he’d first thought. One wore a flashy watch. The other had on a ‘Mr. B.’ collared shirt, and a pinky ring that caught the light when he coaxed the cue ball smoothly toward the corner pocket, kissing a striped ball in.
“You went into a good stance to defend yourself,” Strong said. “But you don’t box in a pool hall. Forget the rules on the street.” Teale was shaking, but somehow exhilarated by the narrow escape. “You coulda took him,” Strong said, matter-of-factly. “I’ll show you a couple ways later. Surefire, if you go quick. That’s always the secret. He who hesitates gets his clock cleaned.”
He picked out a cue and rolled it on the table for true and straight, picked it back up, said, “Rack ’em, streetfighter.”
While they played, Biggs answered the phone and turned toward the street. Strong ducked down as though to tie his shoe. Teale missed a shot. About thirty seconds later Strong stood, walked around the table looking at his shots.
He said to Teale, in a low voice, “Taped a gun under the table. For when we come back.” Teale’s mood dipped, and his face must have shown it.
“Don’t worry. When we come back, we’ll take it with us. In a week or so. Just checking to see if it’s still there. I put it there last week.” He grinned, his expressive eyebrows dancing upwards.
“You’re nuts, Strong.”
“What about ’em, Teale?”
The other two men were wearing their fedoras, carrying their coats, leaving. As they settled up with Biggs, Teale heard him say, “Sorry to kick your boys out, Sammy, but rules you know…”
“No sweat, Tony. They’re tryin’ a get their bones–impress us. They gotta learn how to behave in public. Good lesson,” said the man with the Mr. B. collar, as Biggs helped him on with his suit jacket.
What he couldn’t hear was when the other man said, in a lower voice,”I think them two are your table number four gun guys. The one was looking under the table.” One of the men glanced at Teale and Strong.
The one named Sammy said, “Want us to take care of it?”
“Naw,” said Tony. “I unloaded the piece anyway. If they use it, I’ll just shoot ’em.” They laughed and the other man slipped into his jacket unassisted. They left, and Teale and Strong were the only customers.
Strong handed Teale his keys, said, “Go get the Chevy. Park at the bus stop around the corner from the penny arcade, heading south. Watch for me. You drive, we’ll just drive off slow.”
“Aw, no Lee, don’t…”
“You’ll just be driving, no big deal. Timing’s perfect. I need you, Johnny. You’ll see. Slick as a gut.”
“Shit, you said…”
“I know. But it’s right. It’s time. We won’t ever do it again–that’s when they catch you. Come on, man, you’ve got the easy part.”
Teale felt like he did right before he fought one of the glowering kids at the Salvation Army gym with no referee, just some uncaring guy at the bell. Sometimes they let it go more than a minute, he was sure of it. He flinched a little, when the bright sunlight hit him, stopped on the steps to the sidewalk so his eyes would adjust. In his mind he tried to rationalize what he, they, were doing, but came up blank. He knew he was crossing some line and would never be able to retract it. It would end up on the minus side. Shortly, he would be a criminal.
They jumped him as he passed the alley on the way to Strong’s car. The blow from the sap one of the pool hall toughs hit him with, sent him far into a black unconcscious state with some red fireballs along the way, but the blade sliding into his liver killed him. At the pool hall, Strong paid Biggs for the time and replaced his wallet, sailor-like, in his waistband with half of it hanging out. Something wasn’t right about the gun. The tape wasn’t the same. Something. Well, at least Teale would get the rush, the experience. He’d tell him later that it was a no-go. He smiled and stood in front of the pool hall for a moment, allowing his dilated pupils to close some before he crossed the busy street to the penny arcade.