Dark Side

Night Photography in Virginia

St. Elmo Billiards, Norfolk, Virginia, ca. 1914

Harry C. Man (1866–1926) St. Elmo Billiards, 113 E. City Hall Avenue, Norfolk, Virginia, ca. 1914

Harry C. Man (1866–1926)
St. Elmo Billiards, 113 E. City Hall Avenue, Norfolk, Virginia, ca. 1914

 

Respond to this image with short story or poem (under 1,000 words) and post it below to enter the Dark Side Writing Contest. See Contest Information page for full details.

Though the contest is now concluded, but you can read the entries below and the Winning Entries.

Creative Commons License
This work by Library of Virginia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

3 Responses to “St. Elmo Billiards, Norfolk, Virginia, ca. 1914”

  1. Joe Cyrus Phibbs says:

    Even in his old, old age, he never forgot the sign over the pool table at St. Elmo de Barcelona pool hall in Norfolk. IF YOU CAN’T SHOOT, DON’T. In those days, there were no “beginner’s tables”, so novices opened themselves to silent whispers, open ridicule or worse. Tears on the green fabric were nothing compared to the tears in self-esteem or tears that flowed.
    For the rest of his life, the ying and yang of choices: take a chance? Be with caution bold? Keep trying? Don’t try? Go ahead? No guts, no glory. None but the brave deserve the fair.
    In his case, he could shoot; he did shoot. And never forgot.

  2. Sarah Pezzat says:

    Pure Luck

    “What in…?” my wife said, and then there was the thump of a falling canister, and a spray of brilliant blue powder all over the linoleum.
    We looked it over for a minute. It was a brand new tin of Royal Baking Powder, which Emily was of course expecting to be white.

    Back then, she was working behind the counter in Ronzo’s Lunchroom (the slightly seedier annex to Ronzo’s Quick Service Restaurant), and I was working the graveyard shift down at the docks, so her day began when mine ended.
    She gave me a pleading look that meant there would be no biscuits. I told her I’d clean up the mess and stop by her work later to eat, which she didn’t like (“I had to work an hour to pay for that…”) but I went all the time anyway because I liked to see her.
    When she was gone, and I was sweeping up, I had a kind of imaginative thought. What I thought was, this powder looks just like the chalk they set out on the tables up at St. Elmo’s over Ronzo’s (and Ronzo’s Lunchroom). It wasn’t much of an idea, but it was mine, and later that evening, after a restless day’s sleep, I found myself tucking the can into my pocket and heading to the pool hall.
    It wasn’t a very nice place, but I played there once or twice a week, and I could drop in on Emily at work. I got to be pretty good, too.
    That night, I played the best pool of my life, including a bank shot I didn’t really believe in, but tried anyway because it seemed like the cue knew better than I did. It felt like it wanted to take the shot, and I let it. One of the regulars up there bet me I couldn’t do it again. I won five dollars that night. I won ten dollars the next night, and twelve the night after. Saturday, the place was crowded and everyone was around me, cheering me on. I felt the same excitement they did, watching the best nine ball player that anybody had ever seen in the place. And I mean watching—that spot on the cue ball, winking as it rolled over the felt, lightly smudged with pure luck. It didn’t have anything to do with me.
    Hustling was out of the question. I can’t lie to save my life. But the regulars hustled for me, inviting tourists and sailors to take me on (always being very generous with themselves as my agents). I earned the money for a Victrola, a string of pearls for Emily, and then a Model T. I moved us into a house with a yard, making payments with pool hall winnings.
    Sometimes I thought about saving some for an emergency. Sometimes I thought about what got spilled on the floor that first morning, and how I would like to have it back. But I never saved any. I played three or four times a week, and you would have seen me up there that whole year, in the light from their big floor to ceiling windows, getting all the respect in the world.
    I wondered if the powder could perform other miracles. I sprinkled it on a sick nephew, but my sister said the croupe just ran its course in the most ordinary way and to stop asking questions about it. The powder also had no ability to repair a watch or choose a horse at the race track. Pretty soon, to my embarrassment, I ran out of ideas. I went back to chalking up at St. Elmo’s so as not to waste it.

    There must be some smarter man out there who would have been able to sell it. Or make up his own blue powder and sell it even though it wasn’t lucky. But in my family we never had much, so when good luck came along, we didn’t wonder why there wasn’t more. And anyway, just about the time I could see the metal bottom of the canister starting to show through the powder, it stopped working. Emily said she couldn’t understand it, since baking powder is supposed to last a long time. I didn’t know how to answer that. We had to move back into a smaller place, and the Victrola broke, but we drove the Model T until 1935, and when we sold it I used the money to buy my daughter a white dress to wear on graduation day.
    I went back to St. Elmo’s that same year, and they told me my own story, never recognizing that it was me they were talking about. Most of what they said wasn’t true anyway, but it didn’t bother me. It made me think of those first few weeks, when I used to come downstairs on my way out and give Emily my winnings, and she would lift up the corner of her apron and tuck the money into the pocket of her candy-striped wash dress, smiling at me in a way that said we had a secret together, that she wasn’t just a girl who worked a lunch counter.

  3. Elizabeth Morelli says:

    Ambient Light

    The Lamps are different, but the Light is the same.-Rumi

    After Delilah climbed out of the kitchen window, what remained with Rose and Mama were her ruptured words. The residue from an overflowing pot left to be scraped clean with lye. Neither inhaled; neither spoke. Closing the window was an act of practicality.
    Hours later, buoyed by two neighbors, a limp and oblivious Delilah was brought home to lie on the sofa while Mama bathed her sooty face—except her eyes, forced shut. The neighbors said “firecrackers” and left the story out. The hospital was more specific chastising Mama for letting her fifteen year old befriend ruffians with poor intentions and matches. In life, Delilah defied all limits of distance, pulling close to the enemy, pushing away family—lighting a firecracker within inches of her unstained face.
    “Probable blindness,” the doctors declared. “One eye may have some tunnel vision. Someday.”
    Mama and Rose cried and attempted the mend. Mama sent a 14 word telegram to Papa whose ship was guarding the country’s eastern perimeters against The European War forces. Rose tried to read Anne of Green Gables to Delilah who buried her head when Rose read the first sentences. Tossing the book aside, Rose wrapped herself in the front room’s heavy green draperies to peer out at the small restaurants across the street on ground level and St. Elmo’s Billiards upstairs, opposite their second floor flat. Bright lights; lively people outside their home; dark rooms, sadness inside. At age ten, Rose understood the sharp contrast.
    Papa had chosen the flat in Norfolk because of its proximity to St. Elmo’s. After dinner on Fridays, he would say to Mama, “One beer and one game,” kiss his daughters and slip across the street to emerge from the buffet with a glass and climb the interior stairs to the pool room. On those evenings, they would watch him glide from cluster to cluster of uniformed sailors while they waved frantically until he acknowledged them with a nod. Then they’d stand quietly listening to the clean echo of the wooden balls. When dusk fell the multiple lights of the building would come on in segments—first the interior lights of St. Elmo’s glowed, followed by the outside left, the top marquee and then the right as if the beginning of an evening’s theater. If a thunderstorm blew in, Rose would watch the reflections of the “fire” in the puddles on the cobblestone street and believe she was at a street carnival.
    Whenever Papa shipped out, St. Elmo’s became a vibrant portrait of him that his daughters would stare at for hours hoping he would reappear. The previous year Delilah had tried to sneak into St. El’s claiming that Papa had left a pocket watch there. “Tarred and feathered,” she responded with a smile when Rose asked her what had happened.
    * * *
    Now an almost somber Delilah, eyes shielded by dark glasses, feet wiggling slightly, sits across the front room listening to the radio that Mama keeps on most of the time. Rose has unwound herself from the drapes and watches her older sister’s feet. “What was it like?” she spills out suddenly, too loudly, while chewing on a braid.
    “Rose, you don’t ask Delilah those. questions,” Mama rebukes.
    “Hell,” Delilah says. “A night in hell, Rose, but the beginning was good.”
    “Stop it, “
    “No, Mama. I need to say it. It was so beautiful at first. So many fireworks and rockets all going off at once lighting the alleyway with a million bursts of flash and noise. I felt so alive, so happy. Then I grabbed a string and lit one after another, maybe not quickly enough, because the crackers started to go off, and I remember the excitement…and my friends saying, “Drop them, drop them.” Bright flickers right in front of me, almost part of me.”
    Rose breathes just once. “What happened?”
    “You know the story. My eyes got burnt.” Delilah’s voice deepens, and she pulls the quilt back over her head.
    “But the lights?”
    “They went out, Rose. Do you understand? There will never be any more lights.” Sounds resembling a dog yelping reverberate from beneath the quilt. Moving gently toward the sofa, Mama reaches out to pat the top of the clumped material. Rose twirls back into the flowing drapes preferring the cushiness of velvet to Delilah’s sounds.
    Across from the darkened apartment with Rose poised at the front window, six men lift their beers for a toast before they take cues in hand— drinking to their ship, their camaraderie, St. Elmo’s and the new summer night, a pink and gold medley forming the backdrop for the electric lights of the street businesses. The sailors’ voices blend as if a musical ensemble punctuated with a cacophony of hoots and hollers.
    With a powerful thrust, Rose lifts the front window and tugs back the drapes, turns to the Delilah lump and says in a hoarse, but large voice, “ I’ll watch the lights, Delilah; you listen to the words, because I can’t do both.”
    Mama smiles.

Dark Side writing contest

Required fields are marked *