Larry is drunk, but he’s shooting well. He’s shooting with Don against a man I’ve never seen before: a rotund, white-haired man with a loud voice and a black Horseshoe Lounge tee-shirt. “That’s Al,” Larry says when I ask. “He’s a good shooter. Real good. He built this counter right here, he was talking about it the other night. He’s from New York. Him and Nick got into a fight a couple of years ago, actually. He’s from New York. Now I’m not prejudiced or anything, but Al’s a prick. He’s a good shooter, though.”
The shuffleboard gods have visited the Horseshoe tonight. It is only the tournament semifinals, and the shooting is expert, even unreal. Don’s a good shooter, too, and together they’re witty players, each frame a quick, smart vaudeville sketch. Usually, the frames seem improvised, like a pick-up conversation with occasional bright spots of humor or word play. There are six shots to a frame, which doesn’t leave much to work with. But Don and Al are writing something that’s meant to last – in one frame, each man’s shot answers the other man’s with a knock-off that sticks in the two- or three- point regions of the table, one shot after another three times, then Don trumps Al with a come-around lag shot on the hammer that hangs off the end of the table. “Gottagottagottagottagotta” Glenda shouted to stop it, and it was a surprise when it actually did. The goddamn slam dunk punchline. Four points. It actually happened. The few spectators erupt with appreciation, and Larry comes back to the game from the pool table at the other side of the bar, to see what he missed.
As a rule, shuffleboard games are difficult to remember, particularly if you don’t know the players well, which at the Horseshoe means that you haven’t been watching or playing with them for the last twenty years. That’s why I tend to remember the games more as a series of unconnected one-liners, rarely in a sequence of frames that would make a game seem more like a poem or song composed of stanzas and refrains.
I missed the final game though, because I got into a conversation with a talkative bureaucrat who’d come up from Victoria for meetings at some state agency. “Damn, that’s slick! I’ve never seen such a slick table,” he said. “They must keep this pretty slick. Look at that weight! Jeez! Right there, see it? That’s slick.
“Do they put down new powder before every game? Man, they’re serious! When they do that, you know they’re playing for a lot of money. Those high stakes guys, they want the board cleaned every time.”
I asked him if he played here a lot.
“I played here thirty years ago, on this very table. It’s a great table, a world- class table, maybe the best table in Austin. They take real good care of it, too. Looks almost flat as it used to be. Some places they just have a table and it’s there and they play on it, whatever shape it’s in. But this one – there was air-conditioning back then too, but it’s in really good shape. A table is a living thing. It’s made of wood, which is a living thing. A table is a living thing. You can make an adjustment to it, and you won’t know for a year.”
Where else did he play?
“All over Texas,” he said. “You name it.
“Yeah, I know Texas Billy. I heard of him, I mean. Stories. You know.
“You play shuffleboard?” He lit a cigarette.
“Not really,” I said. “I’m an aficionado.”
Coach has just folded his wallet with his winnings from the tourney pot in it and is packing his titanium weights into a padded pistol case when I approach him. I’m nervous, because when Tommy and I were admiring Coach’s shooting, I thought I heard him snarl, “Stop starin’ at me.” So for the rest of the game I kept my eyes following his shots down the table, where they wove smoothly around the weights Ronnie had blocking the lanes and stopped at the end – in the twos or threes. They were sudden stops of such precision that Coach seemed to summon from each weight a memory of its own inertia.
But Coach was friendly. He’s mid to late sixties, short, longish hair combed straight back and with large gray plastic glasses, a sort of grizzled easiness that’s less than charm but more than aloofness, though he’s not forthcoming with his shuffleboard expertise. When I complimented him on his shooting, he stifled a smile and sipped his Coors: “I guess I got lucky,” he said. He’s more modest than even the official shuffleboard motto – “friendship through competition” – would require. At one point he said, “Those guys I beat tonight” – and he stopped himself, even though no one was listening. “Well, I didn’t really beat them, but I held Ronnie back and A.J. held Jake back.”
Coach got his nickname from a softball team. There was a Lefty, and a Babe, and a Bubba, and a Dusty; Coach was the coach. “My real name’s Lendon,” he said. “Coach is just easier to remember.” He’s the guy who adjusts the table in the Horseshoe Lounge. “They call them climatic adjusters. When the temperature changes, the boards will warp. So you got to get in there and change it up. I probably do it twice a year here because the board, see, is so far from the two doors. But some places, like over at the Saloon, the board’s about this far away from the door? So they got to do it every week, I hear.” Coach goes every year to Reno for the national championships and helps set up the boards. With Tommy, he’s one of the board boys, a name he doesn’t seem to appreciate. “Up there I don’t play; all those guys are minus-ones. I’m a three.”
“Adjusting the tables is like music,” he tells me. “Some people go to school to train and some people know how to do it naturally. So some people adjust it with a level, but I’ll do it by eye. I’ll shoot some weights to see how it feels. If the weight comes down the side and like this” – he slides his hand straight, then falling to the right – “and not like this” – his hand sliding to the left – “I’ll pull that side up a little bit….”
Thursday night, the place is as loud as that Tatooine bar in Star Wars; make a wrong move and someone will blast you. Bikers in leather pants and heavy mustaches stride through, talking on cell phones; college girls in flowery dresses and snapped-brim cowboy hats jiggle Lone Star longnecks between their fingers, yahoo for the redneck renaissance; local drinkers hunch at the bar, exposing their wrinkled old necks, flopping money on the bar – no tabs allowed. There’s a pool game, a dominoes game, and a card game going down; it’s shuffleboard night too, a tournament night, but really, every night is shuffleboard night.
In the gravel lot behind the bar, a row of diesel pickups is shoved against the back wall. There the night is so sheltered and quiet, Lamar Avenue seems two counties away. A gravel street, lined by two rows of cottages, heads toward the dark. On the small houses windows sag, and their yards are full of junk piles. In the sky are stars. In the nearest house, a light’s on in a window; that window opens onto a kitchen, clean and lacy, a table with a checkerboard cloth and a vase with daisies. A dog barks. We might as well be miles out in the country: me, those stars, that dog, and the dutiful person who cleaned up that table and sits in the front room waiting for the other one who messed it up to come home, for good.
Michael Erard is writing a book about shuffleboard in Texas.