The unique relationship between a father and his son
|"Now listen up, Justin," my father said to me as we stood outside the door to Black-Eyed Pete's Pool and Arcade Emporium that day. "I'm not really supposed to be bringing you in here. Pete's not really. . . uh. . . well, fond of
children. But since your mother was called into work today, and I sorta promised the guys I'd be here for the Big Game, I haven’t got much choice." With my father, every poker game was a 'Big Game'. The way he said it, you knew it was
meant to be capitalized in his mind. "So you just stay with me and be very quiet. And after we're done here, we'll get home before your mom does and setup for your birthday party. Okay? Oh, and if Pete happens to say anything to you while we're in there, you just smile and say 'yessir’".
The year was 1979 and I was turning nine that day. My father, a man of
such small stature that he was known to all by the dubious moniker of ‘Little
Willie’, was once again unemployed, a not unusual occurrence for a man whose resume sported more holes than the PGA tour. We lived in New York and my mother was a nurse at the Bellevue Center. Her salary was more often than not the only source of income for our family. Little Willie’s frequent unemployment made him my primary caregiver, long before the term ‘primary caregiver’ had been invented.
Primary caregiver or not, most days I rarely saw Little Willie; I’d see
him before school when he’d make my breakfast, scrambled eggs, the same thing
every morning, it being the only breakfast food he knew how to cook. It wasn’t
until my first Saturday night sleepover that I realized eggs could even be cooked
any other way. Then I’d be off to school and by the time I returned home in the
afternoon, he’d be gone, off to some poker game or other. My mother always
worked the midnight shifts, so by the time he’d return home to let her go to
work, I’d be fast asleep.
Little Willie never took me to a movie, or a baseball game, or even
tossed around the football with me in the park. I’d see other kids my age doing
these things with their fathers and wonder what made my relationship with Little
Willie so different. I asked my mother once, and she just smiled at me with sad
eyes and said, "Your father loves you, Justin." And those sad eyes were what
stopped me from telling her that I just didn’t believe that was so.
I knew Little Willie liked to go to Black-Eyed Pete’s to play poker; he
talked about it often enough. But I’d never expected him to take me with him
there. In a way I was excited, not only because I was doing something with my
father for once, but because I knew my mother would be furious if she found out
and the very illicit nature of it woke the butterflies in my stomach.
Entering Pete's was like following the White Rabbit down that absurdly
large rabbit hole. All the windows in the building had been painted over with
thick black paint that looked like the grease that always got all over my hands
every time I had to put the chain back on the second hand bike I'd gotten for my
sixth birthday. The only illumination in the dim room came from the weak white
glow of the fluorescent lamps that hung suspended above the pool tables. The
smoke was so thick that my eyes immediately started to burn. Everywhere I
looked, I could see men smoking Camels and Lucky Strikes, or my fathers brand of
choice, unfiltered Marlboros. The smoke drifted off the ends of what seemed like
hundreds of cigarettes, wafting upwards in lazy swoops and whirls, to collect
under the light of those fluorescent lamps, like an acrid storm-cloud waiting
for the proper moment to unleash its torrential downpour.
It seemed to me that the moment we walked in, everyone in the room
stopped what they had been doing to stare at us. Perhaps the mistaken
impression of a child, but it was enough to make me uncomfortable, and very
conscious of how out of place I was. My father too, I could tell, for his face
seemed a bit whiter than it had been moments ago. It was not everyday at
Black-Eyed Pete's Pool and Arcade Emporium that the door to the outside world
opened up to admit a child barely tall enough to see over the pool tables. And
it seemed that our presence had attracted someone else’s attention as well.
Sitting on a stool at a bar strewn with overflowing ashtrays and empty
beer mugs was the largest man I'd had ever seen. Seated, it was hard for me to
tell how large he really was, but a guess would have put his weight nearer to
five hundred pounds than four. The massive head which swiveled slowly around to
view our arrival was covered almost entirely in thick, shaggy white hair,
leaving only his eyes and mouth really visible through the beard. His cheeks,
what could be seen of them, hung down from his face like the jowls of a bulldog,
to be lost in the thick folds of his neck. Even from twenty feet away and
through thick smoke and dim lights, I could clearly see the fleshy stomach that
protruded from under the porcine man’s once white T-shirt, a stomach marked with dark
purple veins that formed a crazy roadmap map, broken here and there by open
sores, like potholes in the road. One hand, fingers as round and greasy as
breakfast sausages, lay idly scratching one of those sores.
As I watched him watching us, he labored himself off his stool, a feat somewhat
like watching a house lift itself from its foundations. As he lumbered towards
us, Little Willie bent down and whispered in my ear. "That's Pete. Now remember,
you just stand there and don't say anything but 'yessir'".
"Now just what do you think you're doing, bringing a kid in here?" Those
deep rumbling words were directed at Little Willie, but the harsh glare that
came with them was all for me. "I don't recall this place being named
'Black-Eyed Pete's Baby-sitting Service'. Do you?"
"Well, no Pete, uh, but. . . " my father began.
"Madigan! Get over here, Madigan!" Pete bellowed. From out of the dim
shadows of the back of the room came a man who must have been Madigan. Whip
thin, and standing tall enough that he had to duck the high-hanging table
lights, he was dressed all in black, so that he seemed to be formed out of the
shadows he had walked out of, as if some evil spirit had been hovering there
waiting for Pete’s call before coalescing into the shape known as Madigan. The skin on his face was stretched so tightly over his sunken-in eyes and sallow cheeks that I had the impression I was looking at a skull. Even his hair
was brittle looking and that sickly yellowish color one would expect of a long
dead and decaying corpse. More terrified than I'd ever been in my life, I
grabbed desperately for my father’s hand, something I never did but the warmth
of it seemed the only link to normality I had. Little Willie looked at me in
surprise, but merely squeezed my hand tighter.
"What's up, Pete?" The walking cadaver asked, in a voice suprisingly soft
and lilting, not at all like the creaking of bones, or the hissing of snakes
that I had expected.
"What's up? I'll tell you what's up! Little Willie here seems to be under
the mistaken impression that we're running a baby-sitting service!" He shook one
meaty finger at me. "Now, I may be mistaken, but I don't recall seeing any signs
saying "Childcare Provided' anywhere around here, do you?"
"Now, now, just relax," Madigan said. Looking at the two of them standing
side by side, the overly thin Madigan and the corpulescent Pete, I couldn't help
but think of Abbott and Costello. Although I couldn't imagine anyone playing
straight man to Pete. From the thunderous look on Pete's face, I wasn't sure
that laughing was something Pete was even capable of. "He's just a boy, what's
it gonna hurt, him being in here?"
"Now you listen here," Pete said in an icy voice, the waggling finger now
turned towards the skinny man, leaving me relieved that the attention was
somewhat off me. "When our Daddy owned this pool hall, we weren't even allowed
in as kids." I stared at the two of them in shock. Brothers? I couldn't imagine
any two people looking more unlike brothers than these two. . . they were the
epitome of opposite. "And now that he's retired and left it to us, I ain't about
to start changing his rules."
"I don't seem to recall Daddy running illegal poker games in the backroom
either," Madigan replied in as icy a tone as his brothers. "Seems to me that our
Daddy's somewhat of a religious man, or have you forgotten all those Sundays
spent in church? I don't think that he'd cotton too much to learning about your
little sideline business. Do you?"
Pete's face had gone that peculiar shade of white that I had always
associated with the rubber glue that I used at school. Until then. After seeing
that, that color would always remind me of Pete. "You wouldn't dare," he whispered.
"You're in this just as much as I am," with each word, the whisper got louder
and louder, until he was just short of yelling. "What do you think paid for that
new Buick you're driving? If you tell Daddy -"
"Hold on, hold on," Madigan interjected, his gaunt hands held up in a
gesture meant to be placating. "Nobody said I was gonna tell Daddy nothin'. I'm
just making the point that sometimes the old rules are just that. . . old rules.
And if Little Willie here wants to bring his son in, I don't see what harm it's
"Uh, really, Madigan, it's all right if -" my father began, breaking off
as Pete's enraged visage swung his way. I'd never seen anything like the way his
gray face became as red as a ripe tomato in the blink of an eye. It was like all
the blood in his considerable body had risen to his face all at once, as if his
surely overworked heart had gotten confused and finally given up directing all
"Now you listen to me, Little Willie. If you insist on bringing that
little brat in here, I'll allow it this time, only because you're one of my better customers. But if he so much as makes one little peep, breathes too heavy, or even passes gas near me, you're both outta here, quicker than a fly
sticks to shit. Got it?"
"Sure, Pete," Little Willie said, flashing him an easy grin.
Centering his red-faced glare on me, Pete growled, "Got that, kid?"
Still too terrified to speak, I couldn't even squeak out the 'Yessir' I
had prepared. A jerking nod was the best I could manage. Giving me one last
malevolent glare, Pete thundered off back to his post at the bar.
Madigan bent down on his haunches in front of me. "Now don't you pay Pete no mind. He's not half the bear he'd like everyone to believe." I wasn't sure how
much I believed that. "Well, all this commotion over you and I don't even know
your name. Mine's Madigan. What's yours?"
"Yessir!" I blurted out. That had been the only word on my mind to say
for so long now, it was like my tongue had forgotten how to form any other word.
Madigan looked up at my father quizically. "It's OK." My father smiled
down at me. "Madigan's one of the good guys, you can tell him your name."
I looked at the skeletal figure, noticing how his eyes twinkled as he smiled at
me encouragingly. "Jus- Justin. Justin La-Lar-Larkin," I said.
"Well, Justin, Justin Larkin, it's certainly a pleasure to meet the young
master that Little Willie’s always bragging about." I stared at him. Bragging?
Little Willie? About me? Surely he had something a little backwards. "So
you've come to lend a little luck to your Daddy's poker hand, have you?"
Wide eyed and still trembling slightly, I merely stared at him.
"That's right," my father answered for me. "My boy's gonna bring me all
the luck in the world today, so I hope you and the boys brought your checkbooks."
Madigan let out a bellowing laugh, making me cling to my fathers hand even tighter, and leaving me wondering how such a rumble could come from so skinny a chest.
"I'm sure he will at that. He couldn't make your luck any worse," he
said, his warm grin showing the remark for the joke he'd meant it as. "Well, no
sense wasting anymore time, the boys are all back there and they're just waiting on us."
With that, he strode off towards the back of the pool hall, leaving my father
and me to follow, both of us nearly running to keep up with his long strides.
He rapped on a door set into the back wall and it opened from the inside, revealing a room more brightly lit, and, if possible, more filled with smoke than the one we were in.
Seated around a large wooden table were two men, both with a cigarette in
one hand and holding cards in the other.
"Well, 'bout time you slowpokes got here," one of the men said, his voice
a lazy drawl. He had a dark brown Stetson hat on, and a toothpick hung lazily from one side of his mouth. His long brown hair hung out from his hat on all sides, framing a face as granite-like and weather-beaten as any cowboy I had
ever seen on all those late night Westerns I wasn't supposed to watch. Looking
at him, I immediately thought of the Marlboro Man, that smokers champion, before
all those anti-smoking fanatics picketed for his removal from ads. And I noticed
that the cigarette he held tightly between two yellowing fingers was indeed a
Marlboro. . . unfiltered, of course.
"Hey Little Willie, that your kid?" came a gravelly voice. Sitting beside
Marlboro Man was the quintessential old geezer that one would expect to see at
any self-respecting poker game. He sat rocking back and forth in a wicker
rocking chair, the only piece of furniture in the room that didn't look like it
had been bought in some garage sale in the forties. The light from the
obligatory fluorescent bulbs overhead shone off the top of his bald head, the
exposed skin of which was wrinkled and speckled with liver spots.
"Jeffrey, Harlan," my father said, nodding in turn to both. "Yes, this is
my boy Justin."
"Boy, I've heard of losing your kids in a poker game, but I never thought
I'd see it!" Marlboro Man quipped.
"Hey, Little Willie, I'll see your kid and raise you my wife!" the old
man put in. "Now there's a bet I'd rather lose!"
"All right, all right," Madigan said after the laughter had died down.
"Justin's gonna sit in on this game with his Dad today, so I expect you animals
to play nice and keep the swearing to a minimum." Breaking open a brand new deck
of cards (the same Bicycle brand that garnished the spokes on the wheels of my
bike), he expertly shuffled them, cutting and bridging them faster than my eye
could follow. "The game," he pronounced, "is straight poker, no draws, no limit
and the buy in is a five hundred minimum. Shall we proceed, gentlemen?"
All joking was put aside and the men at the table became deadly serious.
For two hours, I watched my father play, the pile of chips in front of him
growing smaller with each hand at the beginning, until I thought he was going to
lose it all in the first half hour. But slowly his pile began to show signs of
serious growth, as if it took the cards a few hands to realize he was a good guy
and deserved their support. By the end of the second hour, Little Willie's
amount of chips had more than tripled, and I noticed something else had changed.
There was a light in my father’s eyes that I’d never seen there before, and the
smile on his face was as bright as the noonday sun. He looked more . . . alive somehow, like he was actually enjoying life. In nine years I’d never seen him look like that.
Only two players remained in the game now - my father and Marlboro Man, the
old man having lost all his chips by this time.
"Well, Little Willie," Madigan said with a smile towards me. "It seems
you may have found your good luck charm. I haven't seen you win this much in
My father smiled at me and tousled my hair, the first time he’d ever done
that. I could see the sweat glistening on his brow and feel a slight tremble in
his hand. Playing poker must be hard work, I thought, although I couldn't see
what could be so strenuous about sitting around a table drinking beer and playing cards.
"Shall we continue, gentlemen?" Madigan dealt the cards and the game went
on. For another hour the two men continued playing, with Little Willie winning
nearly every hand, until finally all of Marlboro Man's chips resided in my fathers pile.
"Well, if that ain't the damnedest piece of luck I ever seen!" Marlboro
Man said. "You have horseshoes and four leaf clovers for breakfast, didja?"
"Now why would I bother with such a breakfast when I've got the only
lucky charm I'll ever need right here?" my father replied , clapping me on the
back. I smiled with pleasure and satisfaction. Even though I knew I hadn't done
anything to help my father win so much, he seemed to think I had, and that was good enough for me.
"I told ya a poker game was no place for a kid." Marlboro Man sighed
good-naturedly. "I guess I should've stayed home today!"
I could understand his point. He must have lost close to a thousand
dollars to my father. I felt a little sorry for him that day; a thousand dollars
was alot more money in 1979 than it is today.
My father cashed in his chips to Madigan and we said our good-byes. And
after that, before we went home, Little Willie took me for ice cream. And pizza.
And then we went bowling. My father was in as good a mood as I'd ever seen him
in. Of course, winning over a thousand dollars will do that to a person. After
that day, it became a ritual for us. Every second Saturday, Black-Eyed Pete's
held a big game and every game my father would take me. He never won as big as
that again; indeed, in time he began to lose more often than not, even with his
'good luck charm' with him. But I think by that time, he wasn't in it for the
money. I think he was simply enjoying the time we got to spend with each other,
now that we had found something we could do together. I'll never forget the look
in his eyes the day I told him I couldn't make the game because I had my first
high school football game that day. I thought that he would be mad. . . we'd
been going to Pete's every second Saturday for almost five years by then. But he
wasn't mad. The tears that welled up in his eyes were pride, he told me. That
Saturday, for the first time in over ten years, my father missed his game, and
came to mine. There he was, in the stands, cheering himself hoarse as I ran for
two touchdowns and over fifty yards in my first game. And when my coach said to
me after the game, "Helluva game Larkin, are your shoes made out of rabbits feet
or something?", I told him, "Nossir coach, the only lucky charm I need is right
there in the stands."
Twenty years have passed since that day at Pete's. It's January, 2000 now. The glorious millennium. Only not so glorious for
me. My father died two weeks ago, quietly in his sleep. I think he must have
known it was coming, because he phoned me up that day and asked me to go with him back to Pete's. I was concerned at first: we hadn't been in fifteen years. My father hadn't gambled at all in all that time; he'd given it up for good this time, I'd thought. But he set my mind at ease with "Just one final time, Justin, for old times sake?" and there was such pleading in his voice that I couldn't say no.
Black-Eyed Pete’s had changed considerably in the fifteen years since
we'd been. The majority of the pool tables had been removed and replaced with dozens of those loud and violent video games, and the crowd was much younger . . . obnoxious teen-agers who should have been in school. Madigan met us as we came through the door, a little older and still as skeletal as ever. At least some things remained the same, I thought. Pete had died a few years ago, he informed us. Weight related heart failure, which surprised noone. I was quite upset to hear of his death, for regardless of his crabby nature and professed dislike
of children, I'd grown quite fond of Pete over the years, and I suspect he had
developed a bit of a soft spot for me as well.
The game was still being held every second Saturday, though the only
player who remained from the old days was Marlboro Man, who greeted us with such
warmth I thought he would break my ribs before his bear hug was through. He was
still dressed in his cowboy style.
"Thelma asks about you all the time," he told me. I had dated his
daughter through all my high school years before we drifted apart in college.
"She's still single, you know," he said with a wink.
"Uh, I'm engaged, Mr. Perrin," I lied smoothly, shooting my father a
warning glance that served to quiet his burgeoning smirk. I had begun calling him Mr. Perrin when I had dated his daughter, but in my mind I always thought of him as the
Marlboro Man. And I'm not engaged, not even involved, and that's the way I like
"Lucky girl. Well, Little Willie, it's been a long time since I've had the chance to take your money. You sure you're up to the challenge?"
My father laughed and laid five crisp C-notes on the table in reply. There was a sparkle back in his eyes that I hadn't seen there in the five years since Mom had died. I was suddenly glad we had came. They played for five hours,
cleaning the other players in the game out in less than two. I was awed watching them play. It was like watching two stately old lions fighting for supremacy. At the end, once again all of Marlboro Man's chips sat in front of my father, and a huge smile, which had been such a rare sight in the last few years, was plastered all over my fathers face.
"Well, Little Willie, it's a pleasure losing money to you again," Marlboro Man said with a grin as they shook hands. "See you and Justin here next time?"
My father looked at me and I nodded. "We'll be here, Jeffrey. Me and my
But that wasn't to be. That night my father died. They found him in his bed, a deck of cards on the nighttable, a book on Poker lying open on his chest, and a peaceful smile on his face.
Marlboro Man and Madigan came to the funeral, where Madigan gave the eulogy. And at the end, before the closing of the casket, he laid five cards in Little Willie's right hand; a royal flush in hearts. He put a stack of chips in
"The game goes on," Madigan whispered as the casket was closed, and I nodded through my tears.