May 24, 2005

Here we go again -- More stories!

“Turning River”

The only thing more offensive than the smell of the Grease Pit was the face of the gentleman that greeted anyone brave enough to enter. Greasy, ink-black hair seemed to ooze from under the faded trucker’s hat, shrouding eyes that had sunken into their sockets and cheeks lined with scars and age. A quick grin showcased a dental free-for-all, with scarcely half the teeth remaining, and half of those covered in metal or plaque.
Eddie was an appropriate host here, as the Pit had a few holes to call its own, and didn’t feel ashamed to cover them in whatever it could. All along the walls were signs that hung askew and broadcast announcements for daily specials, some on food, but most for drinks with tacky names that men would call clever and women would roll their eyes at. The trim along the walls was wood, which probably could’ve passed for classy had it not surrounded flyers for Hot Oil Wrestling on Tuesday nights and Ladies’ Night every Friday. The fifty or so folks that sat at the eight tables, however, weren’t focusing on women tonight – it was Wednesday, and as anyone could see by the sign under the neon Corona Light sign, it was Poker Night.
Cigarette smoke cast a deep haze over the tables, dancing in the low light from the fixtures over each 52-card battleground. It was hard to hear the Lynyrd Skynyrd over the various bet and raise declarations, but most everyone seemed to be too focused on the ceramic clinking of their own chips to care. The smoky haze complemented the strong stench of beer and Jim Beam, offset only by what has to be chalked up to a hard days’ work at the factory or construction site. Most of that, as anyone who’s played at the Pit before knew, could be attributed to Ben Lambert.
Ben had the grimy essence of Eddie, just without the zombie-like aftertaste. A soiled red T-shirt peeked out from under his equally grungy sleeveless jean jacket, and black jeans covered the skinny stilts that some people are surprised he calls legs. A bucket sitting next him held five beer bottles (now sitting upside-down in the ice) while he nursed from the sixth. His scraggly, grey beard lifted a little as he bit his lip, letting a few drops of the beer that missed their destination fall from what Ben fondly called his “flavor-saver.” He fingered his chips for a moment, then tossed in his cards, leaning back in his chair and desperately trying to get the last few drops out if his final bottle.
After a few more hands, he ordered to more bottles, grinning shamelessly at the waitress as he made a feeble attempt to tell her how nice her halter top, amongst other things, looked that night. The waitress laughed, then walked away, rolling her eyes all the while. Ben didn’t catch that, as his eyes were focused on the very things he’d just mentioned. As his eyes followed her out the room, he noticed a kid sitting by himself at a booth along the wall. He seemed out of place here with his collared shirt, khaki pants and baseball cap, but Ben remembered smugly that he had taken all of this schmuck’s chips earlier in the game. What seemed odder than his attire, though, was the notebook on the table and the pencil in his hand. Normally Ben wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but he was a little concerned when he realized that this kid was writing something down while he was looking him in the eye.
He asked the old hag next to him to fold his next few hands and walked over to the booth, determined to find out what was going on. Patrons and waitresses alike gave him a wide berth as he passed, not just from the stench of him, but also his reputation of aggression and ill temper. He sat down at the table without any objections from the kid sitting there and wipes his nose with the back of his hand as he faces him.
“Got a problem, kid?”
“No, sir, just ready to play in the next game is all.”
“Really? Mind tellin me what you’re jottin down there?”
Jimmy was caught red-handed, and he knew it. It was oddly similar to the bluff that this same old man had called at the table, sending him to retreat in this booth until the next game started. Only thing to do now was fess up and minimize the damage.
“Homework. Just trying to get it done while you’ve given me a little bit of free time,” he joked.
“Care to say why you have to stare at me while you do that?”
“Is it bothering you?”
“The run-around is, son. Let’s see it.”
Jimmy looked down to cover up his notes, but Ben had already pulled them over to his side of table and was reading them quickly. He’d written some less than flattering things, so he braced for what he figured would be a violent reaction.
Instead, Ben burst into laughter, his eyes shining dully in the yellow light pouring onto the table. “I think you’ve nailed this rat trap, son – what the hell’s this for, a bar review?”
Relieved, Jimmy let his guard down a touch and smiled. “It’s a writing assignment – take the ambiance of a setting and put it on paper in a story. I’d say this place has ambiance to spare, right?”
“Yeah, though they could go easy on that “ambiance” from time to time. Here’s my question, son – since when does a bar have a… let me find it… here, ‘a grey, scraggly beard’? ‘Scraggly’ isn’t even a word, is it?”
“Well, that’s not about the bar so much as one of its patrons, I’m afraid.”
“It’s about me, ain’t it?”
The jig was up. Jimmy nodded in affirmation, wondering if the explosion would happen now.
“And what am I getting out of this?”
Fast thinking was not a specialty of Jimmy’s, but he surprised himself by coming up with what he figured would be an iron-clad solution as a waitress passed by.
“How bout I buy you a couple beers?”
Ben wasn’t expecting such an offer (or even the honesty this kid had shown the whole time). He smiled, knowing to raise when he had the upper hand.
“You make it whiskey and you’ve got a deal, son.”
Two shots of whiskey later, they were still sitting at the booth, Jimmy still a little uneasy after somewhat intruding on Ben’s privacy, and Ben trying to tell him a thing or two about poker.
“The thing is kid, you absolutely have to let the other guy think you have the best hand. That’s not done by betting alone – that’s done by everything about you. The clothes you wear, the way you talk, even the way you smell – you have to let them think you’re a disadvantage.”
“I guess I just don’t understand how you can keep all that straight after a full bucket of beer – how many hollow legs do you have?”
The dull glisten returned to Ben’s eye. “Two. Plus a hollow beard. The trick is to make them think you’ve had more than you can handle when you’ve barely had any at all.” He clinked to two shot glasses he’d downed a few minutes ago. “This is the first alcohol I’ve had all night.”
“What? Where’d all that beer go then?”
Ben just winked and reached for his wallet, pulling out a small white card. “I’ve got to get back to the table – I’m big blind next hand. I like you, kid. Best of luck with the paper, and let me know when you want to learn how to really play poker.” He then handed him the card, cleared his throat, and placed the gruff frown back on his face. As Ben walked slowly back to his table, Jimmy glanced at the card, nearly dropping it after reading it. Turns out Ben was a senior IT consultant at a prominent engineering firm, a far cry from the construction worker Jimmy had figured him to be.
He stared back at Ben, who’d taken his seat and already had another bottle of beer in his hand. Jimmy watched carefully this time, and chuckled as he saw Ben bring the bottle to his lips, taking what looked like a long pull. He let out a satisfied breath, then casually leaned back, letting his arm drop to the floor. Jimmy just shook his head as he watch the bottle tip forward, letting some of the beer flow out onto his pants.
Jimmy grabbed his pencil and jotted this down, murmuring to himself. “That explains the odor, all right. He probably hasn’t washed his shirt in months. Old man even wore black jeans so no one could tell they were wet.” He knew then that he had a lot to learn about poker, but more importantly, about reading people in general.

May 17, 2005

Well, as long as one of us is sleeping on the couch...

why not make it both?

I've been hit with the "Caesar's Bath" meme, which is essentially five things that you feel are over-rated by your peers. Apparently, it's taken from a Mel Brooks line in History of the World (Part I) -- "Nice, nice. Not thrilling... but nice." This was passed on to me by my wife, who's first item on her list of five was a lengthy diatribe about the poker explosion, which is understandable -- I can't deny it's gone a bit too far, but I must say I rather enjoy it. So, as long as she's sleeping on the couch, I might as well list something that will keep her company.

1. Sex and the City / Desperate Housewives Two shows that are successful for the same reason -- a good number of men are scum. Not only is it refreshing for women to see strong female characters (because, let's face it, there aren't that many strong female characters out there), but men (and teenage boys, I'm sure) watch because it lets them see women with wet t-shirts (if any shirt at all) on network television. What bugs me about DH is what bugs women about most other shows -- the men depicted are not real men. One cheated on his prim-perfect wife with a dominatrix prostitute; one is never home, leaving the wife to run the house AND watch the three children; one is a white-collar criminal; and the only decent guy (who's trying to fall in love with Teri Hatcher's character) is a cop-killer. The secondary male character seem to only be around to get into the women's pants. Not real men. Sex and the City does indeed have real men and decent plotlines; sometimes things end up being the fault of one of the four female characters. What bugs me about it is the dialogue -- I swear this conversation takes place while writing each episode:

Writer1: Man, this storyline is great, but we're a couple minutes short. How're we going to fix this?
Writer2: Hmmm... How many dick jokes do we have so far?
Writer1: Well... Nine, I think.
Writer2: NINE? That's IT?!? Quick, write in a lunch scene and include at least four more.
Writer1: That's great TV! Men are scum -- Ha Ha!
Writer2: Indeed, and is there any way we can make Samantha sluttier? I think a couple more vibrator references should do the trick.
Writer1: YES!

The other thing that makes me chuckle is that my wife (who I absolutely adore) has disliked Sarah Jessica Parker and Teri Hatcher to the point of loathing, but truly enjoys both shows. Now, THAT is good writing. I love you, sweetie. :)

2. Politics Time to offend the career choice of some of my closest friends! Really, though, it's not so much the politics as it is the political commentary. While the Internet gives us great things such as blogging and free instant access to any NES game ever made (thanks, Jay -- no more free time for me!), it also brought about the 24-hour news explosion and message boards, where any schmo with a connection and a spare few minutes (that's me!) can read, in miniscule web-bites, what's been going on in Congress and everywhere else in government and then can go COMPLETELY overboard by complaining about it to friends on the board (Yay for anonymity!). This leads to rabble-rousing of the highest order (TREASON! she yelled from the eastern mountain, echoed by LIES! from the peaks of the West), which then enflames those in the public who don't know any better (or have any shit to do) to draw Purple Hearts on Band-Aids at National Conventions or write LIFE on tape over their mouths in protest (while college frat boys in the background wave their beers at the camera). All of it broadcast on National TV 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please. This is why of all the news stations out there, the only news program I can take seriously is hosted by Jon Stewart.

3. Star Wars. WHAT?!?!? Did I really just say that? Though I may have to hand in my Official Geek Patrol Leader badge in for saying so, I never bought into the Star Wars phenomenon. I do enjoy the movies as they're entertaining, but not enough as a good geek should. I actually started nodding off in the theatres when watching the second film -- not the Clone Wars, but the Empire Strikes Back. I did enjoy, though, people making complete fools of themselves at the Convention held here in Indy. Of course, if it'd been a Final Fantasy Convention, you'd've seen me there dressed as Sabin for sure.

4. Vegetarianism NOTE: Not Vegetarians -- I heart vegetarians and Vegans alike and feel that they are welcome to their lifestyle -- it's just not something that I would like to do myself. I don't strongly feel that everyone should eat meat or anything that radical, but I don't feel that eating it is wrong. I also don't think that animals should be mass-produced for the sole purpose of being food, but at the same time, not eating a steak or piece of chicken won't resurrect the poor beast from whence it came. I'll also note that I'd never, ever eat an ovary of an animal, but would eat a piece of fruit (which is the ovary of the tree it came from) any day of the week, and plants are living things, too. Again, I love vegetarians, and I love you, Laura. Please don't kill me.

5. Huntin' a.k.a. Getting Back on Laura's Good Side. Really, I don't have a problem with guns or hunters themselves. I just don't like the fact that people feel they can "hunt for sport." Hunting for food I can understand (man has been doing this since he walked), it's just not sporting to put a deer's instincts against high-caliber weapons with laser sights and whathaveyou. While I'm sure it's very difficult to wait for hours after setting up a camouflaged tent in the middle of the woods to spot a deer, then shoot it in such a manner that it doesn't run away far enough to collect its dead body, I don't find it sporting. Honestly, if you want to call it a sport, put the gun and the orange vest away, strap some antler to your head, and then go chase after Bambi's mom. NOW it's a sport. I guess the underlying annoyance with me about this is they waste valuable programming time on ESPN (though they also show poker, which is very much not a sport either, so we'll call it a wash).

So there you go, the five things that, while nice, don't really thrill me all that much. Time to hit some people up that need to join me in offending their closest friends!! Nando, this one has your name written all over it; Katie Frazier, just another meme to add to the pile; and Justin Sevier, Vandy's own Sir Mix-a-Lot. More from the land of corn and cute (but extraordinarily rotten) puppies later.

May 11, 2005

For the Creative Readers...

Venture IV into the Creative Writing endeavour...

I knew by the look on my daughter’s face that either I wouldn’t like what she had to say or it was going to cost a lot of money. If previous experience were any example, it would probably be both. My wife, Sue, had just come home with our daughter, who had just been at a birthday party for one of her pre-school friends. Joy jumped down from Mommy’s arms and ran into my lap as I was reading my Sports Illustrated in my chair and gave me a big peck on the cheek.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” she yelled, a big grin on her face.
I put the magazine in the rack and gave her a big hug. “Why’s my little sweet thing so excited?”
She just laughed and hopped out of my lap, falling to all fours on the soft shag and crawling around sniffing the floor. I chuckled, but thought that it was odd that our four year-old little girl was crawling after having been walking for so long. Then my wife strolled into the room, walked over to my recliner and leaned in to kiss me hello.
“Welcome back, hon – how was the party?”
“Well, I think Joy found it to be very inspirational.”
“Whose party did she go to, again?”
“Rita Stuart’s. And guess what her parents got her?”
I didn’t want to put two and two together, but my arithmetic skills were disappointingly sound. As realization struck me, I mentally crossed the Stuarts off our Christmas card list. There was Joy, as excited as I’d ever seen her, running about on hands and knees and sniffing the floor between laughs. I could feel a concerned look creep up my face as I looked into Sue’s. As she smiled and just nodded her head, Joy jumped into my lap and yelled the word I was dreading she’d say.
I knew it. This was indeed going to cost me a lot of money. I looked pleadingly up to my wife again, letting my eyes beg her that this wasn’t so. She bit her lower lip and shook her head. “Let’s let her be excited for a while and then talk with her about it over dinner.”
I swallowed my fear and played with her until, letting her bark and roll around the living like any good puppy would. My goal was to get the excitement of having/being a puppy out of her so we could talk seriously about the responsibility of having a dog. When I got to the table I suddenly remembered an important fact that would impede such a conversation – Joy was four.
“Daddy, when can we get a puppy?”
“Well, Joy, Mommy and I need to talk to you about that.” As I said that, I noticed that Sue was staring deeply into her dinner. Either she’d found the Virgin Mary in her macaroni and cheese, or I was flying solo.
“Sweetie, having a dog is a big responsibility. It’s not a thing – you have to treat it as if it’s your best friend not a toy.”
“You mean I have I have to call it Rita?”
“No, sweetie, not if you don’t want to, that’s not what I meant.”
“Good, cause I don’t wanna have two friends named Rita.”
This was going to be a tad more difficult than I thought. I looked over to Sue to see that even a mouth full of chicken couldn’t stop her from smiling in amusement. I followed her lead and dug into my dinner, trying to decide where take this talk from the two-friends-with-the-same-name dilemma.
“Joy, why do you want a puppy?”
“Ummm… cause they’re cute, and they’re soft, and they smell funny, and they give licky-kisses. I like licky-kisses – Rita’s puppy gave me licky-kisses a whole bunch.”
“And what did Rita do when her puppy went poopie?” That got me a look from Sue, who apparently didn’t want to talk about poopie at the table. I almost decided to comment on the asparagus she’d made, but thought better of it at the last moment. Joy, on the other hand, found the poopie comment hilarious.
“Daddy!” she laughed. “Doggies don’t go poopie!”
Sue snorted at that, and I couldn’t help but smile myself. The rest of dinner went all right – I was able to maintain a poopie-free discussion with Joy, and she seemed to understand what it took to have a doggie. I told her we might get one in a couple years, but I didn’t think we could handle it right now, and she ran away from the table crying. I looked over to my wife, who had apparently finished her dinner and was in a great hurry to wash off her plate.
Joy didn’t want a story read to her that night, so I kissed her on the forehead as she lay in bed and Sue tucked her in. As I turned out her light, the only thing I could see on her face was her lower lip stuck far out from her top one. I sighed and shut the door, heading to bed myself.
As my wife and I were in bed watching the news, my wife turned to me and said, “You know, it’s not that bad of an idea.”
“You mean the smoking ban?”
“No, I mean getting a puppy.”
Warning signals blared in my mind. “Really? You think that she’s ready for that kind of responsibility?”
“Well, I don’t think that it should just be her responsibility. Our family hasn’t had any pets, and I think that a puppy would be a good start. Besides you saw how crestfallen she was tonight – I think she really had her heart set on a puppy.”
“I know, but she’s only seen the good side of pet care. Yes, puppies are cute, but I don’t want to have to pick up 50 pounds of cute from our yard every month. And that’s if the dog makes it to the yard at all.”
She sat up on her pillows, looking me in the eye. “Sure, but I think this would be a great way to teach her about taking care of things, you know, having certain duties like taking the puppy out or making sure it’s fed.”
“Honey, you’ve seen the way she takes care of her dolls – can you imagine being alive and having your arms tugged on or being carried around by your hair?”
“But we can teach her about things like that, plus I don’t think a dog would take that very long. She’d understand to stop if the puppy started to cry.”
“Still, it sounds like we’re going to have most of the responsibility, and if that’s the case, why don’t we just make her a little brother or sister.”
That’s when my internal siren went off. Loud as it was, though, it didn’t drown out her response. “Tell you what, if you want to carry around a 10-point kicking weight in stomach and throw up every morning for 270 days, then you can be flippant about “making” kids. Otherwise, mister, I suggest you forget about the notion about any part of that process for a long time.”
As she turned her back to me, I realized two things. First, my wife would be receiving a dozen red roses tomorrow with a card that read, “For everything you’ve done in and out of labor, I’ll always love you. I’m sorry, Me.” Second, we were getting a puppy.
Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Yes, it came to be that I picked up a good bit of “cute” from the yard, and Joy did learn a lot about how to treat an animal. As bad as things got, though (and with puppies it gets pretty bad), it turned out to be worth it.
Sue forgave me for what I’d said, and for being so against getting a doggy. A few years later, we had our second daughter, Marie Rose. Our family welcomed her with open arms (and open paws). It didn’t take long, though, for her to come home from a party and say the one word I had dreaded since we got the dog