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Night Sweats

Prager_HeadshotProfessors Contessa and Jo Ann had begun with the basics – which struck me as, well, fairly basic. Some things had changed, but not by much. “We open all twelve point hands.” Okay, used to be thirteen. No big deal. “And we play five-card majors.” Who couldn’t remember that? “We play convenient minors.” That took a bit of explaining, but again, not rocket science.
For the first half hour, forty-five minutes, it felt as if I were being force-fed water from a fire hose. Then, however, the download eased up and proceeded decently in digestible bites. There was rhythm, if not music. It’s not so bad after all. Maybe I’ll make it, if Contessa doesn’t open her flashcard box and switch on the juice.
Time passes. And passes. At a certain point I’m vaguely aware that in their zeal and with my tacit compliance, they’ve zoomed past the end of Lesson One. They’re zeroing in on responses to partner’s standard opening bid of One Notrump – a hand with 15 to 17 high card points (HCP) and notrump (NT) distribution: 4-3-3-3, 5-3-3-2, 4-4-3-2, and permutations thereof. No singletons (not for me) or voids. No 6-card suits. That much I remembered from before, from when the game wasn’t so deadly serious and people called it ‘party bridge’ for a reason.
They droned on. My stomach grumbled. Indigestion or hunger? Is it lunchtime already?
A hazy mist of symbols and numbers began to form. It rolled in like the thick coastal fogs that swallow and shroud San Francisco Bay. It beclouded my vision. I heard the term Stayman. Word association: I think apple. Then the word transfer, and I thought bus ticket. Next came invitational – Arnold Palmer’s annual golf tournament at Bay Hill, which made me think of the eponymously named drink, too: half iced tea and half lemonade.
My mind wandered. Gladly. I was back at Berkeley. U.C. Berkeley, replaying the summer of 1971. Burt Grampus, a fellow economics department grad student, and I were sitting in Reza’s pizza garden, south of campus, just off Telegraph, drinking beer and mapping population growth curves and capital requirements for the Indian subcontinent through to the year 2050. It was an exercise in speculative scenario-building, proceeding from outlandish assumptions, crude statistics, and questionable analytics. Another pitcher of Bud, please.
A visiting delegation from Bombay – years before maps and political whateverness relabeled it Mumbai – would later laud our findings as breakthrough out-of-the-box research of the highest order. Having reverse engineered wildly implausible growth curves, we’d conjured sufficient space, natural resources, and newly minted infrastructure to sustain virgin metropolises clinging to non-arable hinterlands and marginally habitable highlands. We were heroes – a potent testament to the power of artfully crafted visuals to beguile the eye and thwart common sense. What did we care? It was a ten-week gig, a fellowship sponsored by the Department of Demographics and City Planning.
We did our best work after the third beer every day. We didn’t regard our creative license as being intentionally misleading. We were simply fulfilling what we understood to be our benefactor’s expectations. India could relax, throttle back on controversial family planning, and go on procreating. They were happy. We were happy. How about another pepperoni pizza, Burt, for old times’ sake?
This time it’s Contessa who intrudes and wrenches me back to the didactic present. “Gordon! What do you bid?”
What do I bid? Hmm, let me think. Like most men in my situation – which is to say, like most men who’ve been in a sustained relationship with a spouse or significant other – I rely (heavily) on the XY DVR gene, enabling the male of the species to draw on a minimum 45-second rewind of the spoken word. The ability to reprise the essence, if not the entirety, of oral input temporarily recorded on an erasable loop without the annoyance of paying attention and listening for comprehension is a godsend. The skill required to reprocess that material with reasonable speed and efficiency in order to respond coherently and convincingly – well that, my friend, is a genuine 24-carat gold talent. Yes, Sweet Pea, I was listening to everything you said.
My dreams that night were a fruit salad of dark fantasies, swashbuckling adventures, and Jo Ann dressed as Angela Lansbury, wearing that actress’s Queen of Hearts outfit from the costume party scene in The Manchurian Candidate – the black-and-white 1962 original.
At 2:12 a.m., I awoke in full sweat bloom, brimming with trepidation. Would my impending further rounds of reeducation camp indoctrination foment more such tormenting associations of playing cards with extreme and bizarre specters? What if nocturnal visions of Kings, Queens, and Knaves are prescient manifestations of Tarot and necromancy? What if I’m dealt Aces-and-Eights, Billie the Kidd’s ‘dead man’s hand’? Does that foreshadow doom? Or One-Eyed Jacks – would they stir and roust the ghost of Marlon Brando?
Hmm. I contemplated the alpha male Marlon Brando of The Wild One or A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando before he supersized into a dirigible. Brando the macho, method-acting hunk, radiating pheromones of animal magnetism and smoky sensuality. That fantasy I could readily delve into. Stel-la? Stel-la!
To Be Continued