It is worth noting, just because it is, that a fifteen year old Salvatore lied about his age to get into the US Army and fought in the European theatre in World War II. Upon getting out of the Army, he used the G.I. Bill to attend college and earn a PhD from Stanford. He is an unmitigated intellectual badass with courage to spare and a drawer full of medals to prove it.
Monica seemed to have the wisdom, charm, and wit of her siblings running down hill to her. She was one of that exceptionally rare breed of human – so kind, so interesting, so everything, that if you didn’t like Monica, it was probably your fault. And for some reason, during her last year of grad school she chose to date me.
I was still pretty young too – fresh out of grad school and just starting to make a decent living. We were mostly up through the fall, briefly down in the winter, and the strangest of peaks and valleys that spring. In retrospect, I am fairly sure that our inconsistent behavior, despite steady feelings, was primarily a product of two people adjusting too the new reality of adulthood. I did have the pleasure of meeting her old a man just before Christmas and again at her graduation that spring.
Monica was stuck in New York for job interviews when she called and asked me to entertain her father until she could get back. It happened to be the night of the inner office holiday party of the corporate titan for which I was consulting. The party was held at one of the swanky pool hall/bar/lounge that became really popular in the mid 90s. Being the pool snob that I was (fine, still am too) I had my sticks with me for the party and consequently when I walked in the hotel bar to meet Salvatore for the first time.
We had planned to grab a drink at the hotel and wait for Monica for a late dinner but as soon as he saw my cue case, Sal asked “someplace for us to get a game around here?”
I’ve mentioned my pool game before, and I’ve mentioned that I’m a pretty decent shot, but that doesn’t provide full context. Standard pool ratings run from 2 to 7. You’re average person playing in a bar that has a couple of coin operated tables is between a 2 and a 3. The average person in my pool league is just better than a 4. Back then, I ranged between a five and a six depending on how much I practiced.
A Short cab ride later we’re walking into my usual pool hall and headed for a corner table. I was determined that I was not going be that guy – it’s bad enough that he knows I’m shtupping his daughter, does he really need to be a worse pool player too – but to make every game I lost look good.
In an odd way, I was playing incredibly well to just miss shots and have it appear that I really meant to hit them. We played about a dozen games: I won three, Sal won three, and I gave him the other six.
Our conversation flowed easily and there was more of it than most games between serious competitors. We really liked each other and, drank the same single malt.
By the time Monica arrived, Sal and I were full-on friends and I kept my losing percentage the same. I was really proud of myself for losing so well. When Monica went to the wash closest, Sal said to me “You know, Refugee, your games pretty good you should just practice some more.”
That burned a bit, but I was still in control. A game later when Sal chortled at one of my misses and laughed “Poor Refugee, any time you get near the eight ball, you keep choking,” that was a bridge too far.
I didn’t quite run the next rack, but I wasn’t too far from it.
Sal just whispered in my ear “It’s about time you stopped laying down” and winked at me.
In return, I gave him my favorite line from the best pool movie ever. “Just give me your best game, Fat Man, just give me your best.”
He laughed, and we continued playing until well after the place closed.
We played about even, if any one’s curious.
Salvatore died last week. He leaves behind an amazing wife, six children, more grandchildren than I can count, and a really big fan on the other side of the country.