July 17, 2011

Ring of Fools

That night we had a moon almost full, full enough to cast shadows. In other words, it was the perfect night for poker. The game was small: just five of us — one a drunk; two, a guy who had hiked the Appalachian trail before becoming a gentleman farmer; three, an aging pothead called Griswold; four, a chain-smoking woman-chasing sculptor; and five, me, the fool — sitting around my table in Vermont. We’d been playing together for years. So many years that now we were bored and the only thing left to us was gossip.

David plays poker with his Vermont buddies. This depresses him.

Griswold, looking at his cards, started digging. “So I saw you with Rachel walking down School Street the other night.”

The fool laughed, remembering. “Dude, the way you people party up here.”

“Isn’t she 20 years younger than you, David?”

“We went to the bistro for a drink, that’s all.”

It was a cocktail hike. Up the steep road to the college, where, behind the tennis courts, we took a trail that led down to a cow pasture. We walked between some old barns, then over a short bridge, and that put us on the main road. The bistro was just another few minutes away. We went there to get Manhattans, because in this primitive town in this nowhere county, someone oddly had decided to build a restaurant on a hill that served fine food and wine. Furthermore, the bistro had installed someone who produced great cocktails. She made her Manhattans perfect — that is, with both sweet and dry vermouth. How the bistro found her is a mystery; also a mystery is how people found the bistro.

The sculptor folded his cards. “I should have stopped drinking at five o’clock.”

“You were in on it, too?”

“David had beers for us.”

“They came over first for some beers on my deck,” the fool said. “We hadn’t had a proper hangout since I got here. My God, you people can drink. I come up for clean living and the opposite happens. Do you know that when I finally got home I fell asleep with my clothes on? My contact lenses still in? I haven’t done that in years. I tried to read the time on my cell phone but it was fuzzy and I couldn’t get why at first.”

“It does seem that you do need to go to the hospital at least once every summer,” said Griswold.

“It’s because there isn’t one close by. You see, if there was a hospital across the street, I wouldn’t have to go.”

The sculptor and Big Bob joined Rachel and me at the bistro later, two Manhattans later. But before the fool could go on with his story, a knocking came at the door. Griswold’s daughter and her friend tornadoed in.

“There’s a bat in the house!”

“Oh, a bat,” said Griswold.

“It’s in the house, Dad. It’s giant. You have to get it out.”

“Just open all the windows.”

“But…”

Griswold talked them down until they finally left us to continue playing.

“Bats,” the fool said.

The sculptor said, “Okay, so after the bistro we ended up at the art center’s dining hall with a couple of bottles of whiskey and a few others joined us.”

“Arm wrestling.”

“We arm wrestled.”

“Big Bob beat everyone.”

“David, he beat the girls.”

Then the sculptor launched into it. “One of the artists up for the month started to flirt with me and we ended up in the bathroom.”

Now it’s a poker game,” said the drunk.

But the fool had missed the sculptor’s escapade. He had walked Rachel home. She was so inebriated that she periodically fell asleep while walking. Rachel painted nighttime landscapes that were dark sheets of paint pricked by distant dots of light. She laughed freely, but she was as dark as her paintings.

The fool’s phone rang. It was Griswold’s wife.

“The bat’s still here. Griswold has to come home.”

“Boys, I have to go home.”

“There goes our game.”

“No, no, no,” Griswold said, lit up. “Let’s take two of the trucks. You guys can help find the bat.”

So our mini-convoy left the house: two beat up trucks — one with a wooden flatbed and no sides and a bad muffler driven by the former hiker, the other, an old clunker that still looked cool, driven by the sculptor. The trip across town took just a few minutes, long enough to firm up strategies.

“We’ll need weapons,” said the sculptor. The fool nodded. Up ahead, the former hiker’s truck farted.

Our weapons were, in order of ferociousness: two tennis rackets, a toy butterfly net, a stick, and a sweatshirt. We examined all the rooms, made sure all the windows were opened. Outside the bathroom, the fool thought he heard a squeaking.

“I hear a squeaking.”

The boys converged on the bathroom, but we couldn’t find the bat. We spread out. The fool was about to head up the stairs when he saw the bat’s shadow in flight. He felt a puff of air as the shadow passed his ear.

“There it is!” someone yelled.

“Wow,” the fool said, “bats look like shadows.”

The bat had disappeared again. Griswold was convinced that it had flown out a window. We prepared to head back to play more poker.

“I have beer!” said Griswold’s wife. “Beer and playing cards! You can play here!

Back at the house, we recounted with astonishment the former hiker’s close call.

“It’s a good thing — for me and David, not for you — that I let you go first,” said the sculptor. It was a good thing because we hadn’t worn our seat belts and a big black dog had lain across our laps. Had the former hiker, still driving ahead of us, stopped for just a millisecond longer at the stop sign, the sheriff’s car wouldn’t have pulled him over.

For such a small town lots of things happen. When I expressed this to the drunk, he said, “And you wonder what we do up here. We have lots of things to do.”

It’s on a smaller scale, but because the canvas itself is smaller, everything, every passing occurrence takes on importance Every town, after all, is at the center of the universe. The question was what was the fool doing here in the center of this universe. His local adventures were wearing thin. He couldn’t connect with the people here. He was still an outsider. The town philosopher noticed the fool’s thousand-yard-stare a few nights before at The Spoke, where a reggae band comprised of dreadlocked locals played socially conscious songs. He tried to cheer up the fool, which moved the fool, but not enough to shake off the gloom.

When we all settled back into playing poker, the sculptor picked up his story that last saw him in the art center’s bathroom at midnight with the good-looking artist.

“It was the classic blond on her knees giving head, down to her fingers hooked into my jean pocket touching the loose bills.”

“Wow,” the fool said.

The sculptor’s story then took an interesting turn. “But look, I was so drunk I could barely get it going,” he said.

“But she was so hot.”

“Whenever I looked down I saw blond hair, ceramic tiles, and the corner of the toilet. It wasn’t working for me. I brought up every image from my mental library of women and porn that I could. Until I finally hit on it. Wonder Woman.”

“What the hell was that?” cried the drunk.

“I just told you. Wonder Woman. When I was a kid I loved Wonder Woman. She was beautiful. I loved her. When she ran her breasts bounced. Once I started to think about Wonder Woman everything fell into place.”

We laughed obligingly and then fell silent. The fool realized that he didn’t smile a lot. He laughed a lot. He laughed all the time. But he hardly ever smiled a big chimpanzee kind of smile. He tried it now. It hurt. The fool wondered again what he had been thinking when he bought this house. He wondered if he could last the entire summer here. A few days earlier, he had gone to hay a friend’s field but had to quit after an hour because of tendinitis in his arm acting up. Too much computer work. He didn’t belong here. Surrounded by his local friends he felt lonely. Again he thought about Clarissa — a damaging, diminishing enterprise — and his heart sank.

After the fool had said goodnight to Rachel he had gone home and crawled into the queen-sized bed — his first — where, because of a lifetime of sleeping in much smaller beds, he occupied this one, as usual, along only a small sliver of it.

The game wound down. The fool, despite an earlier lead in chips, had lost everything. The boys left in their wake a couple dozen empty bottles, potato chip shards littering the table, and the lingering smell of beer and weed.

Vermont