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Hunt Valley

Prager_HeadshotAs a crucible, Mechanicsburg proved to be not only survivable, but also (by Jo Ann’s reckoning) rewarding. We had earned 4.61 Red for two days’ work. Correction (per Jo Ann): fun.

Not yet committed – intellectually, spiritually, or financially – to traveling the Yellow Brick Road to Life Master, with mile markers pigmented in Black, Red, Silver, and Gold, I attempted to conduct a lesson in applied mathematics while driving south toward home on I-83.

“Honey,” I began (always a good thing to open with disarming cordiality when launching a bombing run), “you’re right. I’ll reclassify these two days as ‘fun.’ Performing sufficiently above the mean to earn points in three out of four sessions – well surely that makes up for sleep deprivation, what with the thin walls and loud machinery; the nagging backache from unyielding elementary school chairs; and the pulmonary and psychological stress brought on by windowless playing rooms and all those signs warning of Tuberculosis and Legionnaire’s Disease.”

“You know perfectly well there were no such signs anywhere, Gordon.”

Through that singular demurral, she had tacitly validated everything else. I was on first base, heading for second. “I’ve been thinking – ”

“Yeah? Don’t hurt yourself.”

When will I learn not to serve up such exploitable preambles? “Okay. Let’s say we round up those masterpoints to five for sake of simplicity. On the path to five hundred, because I’d need seventy-five silver and one hundred red-or-gold, with a minimum of fifty gold – how old is my sister traveling from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh at eighty-five miles per hour?”

“What on earth are you talking about? You don’t even have a sister.”

“Precisely my point, Honey. Nothing adds up. When you factor in all the expenses – ”

“Now you know perfectly well we can’t reduce healthful stimulation and quality of life activities to mere dollars-and-cents. Let’s talk about Hunt Valley, instead. You’ve earned it.”

What a pivot! With deft diplomacy, she stroked my ego while calling me out before I reached the bag at second. She could easily have carved out a career in politics. Indeed, at least, I had proven myself worthy of meriting a spousal time slot at the highly touted Hunt Valley Regional.

“It’s fifty-one miles door-to-door,” she informed me. “So we’ll have to leave extra early because of traffic. I hope you won’t mind.”

“Why would I mind?

“Because I won’t be able to play with your on the first day. Like I said before, we can fix you up at the Partnership Desk. They’re really good at pairing you with someone simpatico.”

Three weeks later, courtesy of the matchmaker attending the Partnership Desk, I was introduced to Ms. Elvira Simpatico (not her surname, naturally), who was charmingly welcoming despite my having fewer than ten masterpoints to my credit. Elvira was quite petite, with red hair, high cheekbones, deeply creviced smile dimples, and a crackly voice – altogether reminiscent of actress Ruth Gordon, especially so because Elvira wore a headband and necklace similar to those sported by Ms. Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby”.

“Is that a ‘tannis root’ pendant you have there?” I asked, looking to make a connection.

Elvira smiled, but did not answer. We compared convention cards and bonded over Two-Over-One. Ten minutes later, we were into our first board.

I cannot claim to remember any details of our morning session. What I do remember is my utter shock and amazement, as I circled the four-sided results stanchion, in discovering that Elvira Simpatico and Gordon Prager had notched a section top. I was ecstatic. It was as if I had hit five of six numbers in that day’s Lotto drawing. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my mentors.

Alas, as well as we had fared in the first outing, Elvira and I bombed in the second. She seemed to lose interest in playing, and said so. “I really just wanted to play in a single-session pairs today, but Gold Rush was the only thing open last minute.”

At a break midway through the afternoon set, without an iota of critique in tone or bearing, I asked Elvira why she always seemed to card a King when on opening lead. “I don’t like Kings, especially the King of Diamonds.”

“Why the King of Diamonds especially?”

“Only one eye. Can’t stand that. And the King of Hearts with the sword stuck in the back of his head – that’s disgusting.”

Elvira’s sincerity was compelling. What other odd predispositions might she be harboring? At a loss for words, I tried small talk, “Gotcha. You know, the Jack of Hearts and the Jack of Spades – they’re one-eyed, too.”

“That’s why I never include them in my point count,” she explained, grinning broadly. “It’s nice to meet somebody who understands.”

I enjoyed a good stiff Scotch-on-the-rocks that evening. Ten-year-old. Single malt.

I did not play the following morning, but I did meet up with Jo Ann and her partner-du-jour, Lizbeth Morley, at the break between morning and afternoon sessions. “Come with us to the Prize Room,” Jo Ann invited. “Lizbeth and I came in first in yesterday’s overalls.”

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Prize Room. The name itself evoked images of giant stuffed animals and gaudily decorated ceramics of the sort available to coupon redeemers at carnivals and amusement parks.

The Hunt Valley Prize Room had all of the space and charm of a ten-table restaurant coat check closet. Two people sat practically on top of one another behind a double-wide table. Before them were printouts which seem to have been produced by machinery dating to the era of punch cards and Fortran. To each side sat the goodies. No stuffed animals. No ceramics. Instead, themed playing cards, glassware, ball point pens, and vinyl ‘attachés’ reeking of formaldehyde.

“Name please?” Asked one of the volunteer attendants. “Prager,” Jo Ann answered. “Jo Ann Prager and Lizbeth Morley.”

The flipping of pages and close examination of washed-out printing proceeded until the surname had been located. “Gordon Prager?” asked the searcher.

Gordon Prager?” Jo Ann replied. “Did you say Gordon Prager? Why is his name in there?”

In all fairness, I recognize that Jo Ann’s reaction was rooted in a clear-cut case of cognitive dissonance. There was no experiential foundation for expecting that a Most Humble C Player (such as I) could qualify for equal booty, regardless of its essential schlock value.

The laughter which ensued was shared by all, and unlike that which had I had precipitated after falling asleep when on lead at Mechanicsburg, it was not at my expense.

(To Be Continued)