Saturday, May 21, 2011

Vivian's Vortex of Discontent

The Bowl 'n Roll's main business is bowling, but within the confines of the establishment, a dimly lit tavern and a sandwich counter add to the glamor of the bowling alley experience. Redondo, the sandwich maker who has taken sandwich making to a new standard, has a gold capped tooth that lights up his friendly smile against a neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

It's not just me, lots of people have discovered Redondo's sandwich-making abilities. At lunchtime, people are lined up three deep around the counter, waiting for his specialty creations, each one named after a different bowling term: The Strike, The Spare, The Ten Pin, The Railroad, The Turkey, The Lucky Shot, The Crawler, and my favorite, The Gutter Ball. Often, the purchases are made to reward or insult a bowler. Like one time, a guy ordered a Gutter Ball for everyone on the opposing bowling team, hoping, amid howls of laughter, the culinary prophecy would jinx their games.

I don't bowl, but Redondo's sandwiches have become a part of my dietary regimen, so I guess you could say I'm a regular at the Bowl 'n Roll, regular enough for Redondo to greet me with, "Hello my friend, Gutter Ball un momento." There's other regulars aside from the sandwich regulars like myself. There are, of course, the bowling regulars, and then there's the tavern regulars. The tavern regulars often mix with the sandwich regulars as the sandwich counter extends into the bar, and one particular tavern regular perches on the bar-stool closest to the sandwich cash register so she can divide her exposure between the two groups. Her name is Vivian, a little too much lipstick, a little too much Vodka, and a steamer trunk full of opinions.

Vivian has been a fixture at the Bowl 'n Roll since 1978, the year her bowling team, The Alpacas, took the alley championship. There's a plaque in the entryway "to prove it, if you have any doubts." She waves her ice-filled glass in wide, circular gestures while offering her odious commentaries. Vivian is disagreeable and often times downright nasty, but the truth is I'm drawn to her like a moth to a flame, even though it's always me feeling scorched. As soon as Vivian begins one of her barb-filled bombasts, it's like a carnival barker calling, "Step right up, right this way sir, don't be afraid, come listen to Vivian's Vortex of Discontent!" And I'm drawn in every time, like wanting to see the bearded lady but knowing I'll be sorry later and pay the price with a series of nightmares.

All these conversations take place amid the background crackle of tumbling bowling pins. Vivian's favorite response to anything that doesn't please her is, "Oh, give me a break." This phrase discounts all those who don't measure up to her standards. Once, I mentioned Bob Dylan, and she broke into something about how Sinatra was the only singer worth mentioning in her presence. "Bob Dylan," she said with a wave of her glass, "Give me a break."

In an effort to limit my exposure to Vivian, I've been getting my Gutter Ball sandwiches to go, but while waiting, I find myself being sucked into the eddy of her vortex. The other day, she went on a tirade about how there's no such thing as global warming, and when I tried to explain about the polar ice caps melting, her response was, "Warming schwarming, give me a break."

Lately, she's taken to calling me "honey" in a tone that's anything but endearing. After our disagreement about which color M&Ms possess the qualities of an aphrodisiac, she slurred her final remark, "Listen here, honey, it's the yellows, but don't get any ideas; I have a boyfriend who could squash you like a bug," followed by a demonstration with her thumb mashing an imaginary insect on the bar (It's possible the bug may not be the only imaginary thing in Vivian's world).

Once, in an effort to build a bridge of friendship, I bought Vivian a drink, but it had the opposite effect: "What, you think you own me or something, just 'cause you bought me a drink? You bongo-playin' types got nerve. Give me a break." Even when I agree with her, I'm curiously delegated for blame, like when we both mourned the loss of Pluto's designation as a planet, I was reprimanded, "You and your fancy-assed telescopes couldn't leave well enough alone."

This whole unstable relationship is as much about my own culpability as it is Vivian's. If it weren't for Redondo's fine sandwich making, I might be able to end this sour flirtation with her. But several times a week, I pull open the doors of the Bowl 'n Roll, and my arms flail wildly and I spin around, helplessly caught in the swirling vortex of Vivian's discontent.... and somehow, knowing it'll end with a Gutter Ball, it seems okay; a risky road worth taking.

I forgot to mention that each sandwich comes with a complimentary, medium-sized pickle.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ten Years of Fake Laughter

Alanna was a charming woman who graced me with her presence for ten years. I say it was nine, but she claims it was eleven, so we settled on ten, though some people say it was probably only nine, but because she endured my irregular flirtations with lucidity for so long a time, it felt like eleven to her. When we parted, she said that she never quite understood my sense of humor, and that, for the entire ten, nine, or eleven years, she laughed at my comments just to be polite.

I asked her why she didn't say something sooner, and she claimed she was being kind and didn't want to hurt my feelings. She had this peculiar laugh, like a barking seal, that could only be heard when she was inhaling air at the end of a long protracted silent bout of laughter. So I asked her if that quirky laughter was real, and she said that she often faked it, the way some women fake orgasms to keep the relationship on an even keel.

This was many years ago, and to tell you the truth, I've never completely recovered from this revelation. I used to think I knew what was funny, but for quite a long time, I've often been left wondering whether something was funny or not and whether people are laughing at me or with me. Sometimes, when I'm telling a story, people start laughing, and I wonder what they are laughing about, but I keep on telling the story because I think it's a good story but not necessarily a funny one.

I'm not a joke teller. I can't remember jokes. Some people have a Rolodex of jokes in their heads, but as my friend, Eva Gleckler, the comedy critic who has honed her expertise from many years of unfulfilled dating, says those people are not funny, they just have good memories. And I think she's right. There's a surly guy across the alley, Earl Swonk, who only bothers to shave when the V.F.W. holds their monthly fish fry. He's built like a fire plug and has a heavy-footed, deliberate walk, like a robot ready to stomp out miniature villages of tiny people. He's more than a little rough around the edges, and I think some people would say he's downright scary. He's definitely not funny, but he has more jokes logged in his head than fifty comedians. Give him a topic and he'll break into a series of the most off-color, politically incorrect jokes you ever heard. He remembers them all. That's not me; I get everything twisted around in the retelling so that, not only is the joke no longer funny, but I have to backtrack and explain the part about the Norwegian guy that I forgot to include in the first part of the joke.

Many times, when I watch movies labeled "comedies," they don't seem funny at all. Some are quite good, but they often seem tragic and sad, and I have honest empathy for the characters and their troublesome situations and am reminded of either myself or friends in similar circumstances.

And now, when I'm with a group of people and they suddenly break into a fit of laughter, I wonder who among them is fake-laughing and whose laughter is genuine. There should be a laughter-detector kit for these circumstances; it would be a big help for people like me. I just don't know anymore; since Alanna's departure, my comedic sense has been disheveled, and I'm thinking the joke has been on me. Ten, nine, or eleven years is a long time to live, unknowingly, with fake laughter.

I recently saw the lovely Alanna at the annual gathering of the Midwest Gourd Society, the colorful, handicraft-horticultural club where we first met. She barely acknowledged my existence, but when we spoke for a moment, I tried to work one of Earl's jokes into the conversation. She just stared at me with a blank expression on her face and said, "The cake is really good this year," and turned and walked away.
I shouted after her, "I forgot about the Norwegian guy in the beginning!"
But there was nothing, not even a polite, sympathetic, quirky bit of laughter, only a disapproving, "Oh brother," as she disappeared into a crowd of friends gathered at the gourd accessory table.

I wonder if Alanna has been fake-laughing at her present husband's jokes or if he even suspects any disingenuous behavior. Perhaps he's the serious type like Perry Mason, and there's no need for the faux-laughter. Or maybe he's just so darned hysterical that she can hardly contain that quirky laugh. Or maybe he's one of those genius inventor-types and, in his spare time, concocted a fake-laughter-detector that not only monitors the integrity of Alanna's laughter, but alleviates the burdensome chore of remembering the placement of the Norwegian guy.
I just wonder.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thirsty Dreams

Betty the cat steers the rudder of our home. She, along with the rest of the household, just barely tolerates my presence. I'm pretty much allowed to go anywhere in the house but often times get a snake-eyed warning or a hiss for reasons that elude me. At night, Betty sleeps on my wife's side of the bed and occasionally opens one eye as if to say, "Don't try anything, buster. I'm watching you."

Every evening, I place a standby glass of water on the nightstand on my side of the bed, as occasionally, a dream will induce a powerful thirst, worthy of immediate quenching, and it's nice to have a beverage handy during these emergencies. Often times, a small sip of water will suffice, but during one thirsty dream, I awakened so desperately parched that I not only drank almost the entire glass of water, but splashed my face with the remainder. It was the dream where the very selfish Ann Coulter and I shared a life-raft adrift on the Pacific. She had a water bottle and refused to share even a drop, and proceeded to yak on and on about what's hers is hers and not wanting any of my left-leaning slobber. She laughed after suggesting I get out of the sun by sitting in her shadow (which had all the substance of a spaghetti noodle, almost no shadow at all). The thirst, the blistering sun, and the non-stop jabbering nearly drove me overboard til awakening safely in my room.

The thirsty dreams occur on a regular basis, and after a drink of water, I can usually fall right back to sleep. But last night, after a very thirsty dream involving Drew Barrymore, something unexpected happened. Drew and I were lost in the desert, brought there by our participation in one of those Hollywood scavenger parties. We'd been searching for Ozzie and Harriett memorabilia when we wandered off the beaten path. During the ordeal, Drew conducted herself like a lady and was almost apologetic while discarding several articles of clothing, revealing tattoos that not many people know exist. The unforgiving desert sun, along with Drew's tattoo revelations, caused me to startle awake and reach for the water glass, which, to my dismay, was occupied by Betty the cat, slurping and splashing like a riverside baptism.

Maybe Betty has these same thirsty dreams, but she has her own water bowl in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I patiently waited in the dark and watched her fall nonchalantly back to sleep, thoroughly refreshed, while I stayed awake, parched like an old saltine, wondering how many times we've shared the same glass of water.

In the morning, I questioned my wife about Betty's late night water excursion:

--Her: Oh, she's been doing that since she was a kitten.
--Me: So, you're telling me that for the past three years, Betty and I have been drinking from the same glass?
--Her: I suppose. I thought you knew.
--Me: If I knew, why would I drink from the same glass?
--Her: I didn't think it bothered you.
--Me: Drinking cat slobber bothers me.
--Her: She's probably cleaner than you. She's constantly grooming herself.
--Me: Yes, I've seen how she cleans her private parts, and then we share a water glass. At least I have the decency to use toilet paper.
--Her: Thank god for that.
--Me: I'm feeling woozy.
--Her: Think of it this way: it's her way of accepting you, a common bond. You should be complimented.
--Me: Should I return the acceptance by using her litter box?
--Her: Don't be silly.
--Me: I’m telling my doctor I've been drinking cat slobber. Maybe there's a special test and some medication to wipe out the cat cooties that are crawling through my body.
--Her: Now you're being ridiculous.
--Me: I'm woozy.
--Her: It's all in your mind.
--Me: OK, give me a kiss.
--Her: Not so fast, Romeo; you've been drinking cat slobber.

And so the romantic avoidance continues, only this time it's for the very legitimate excuse of unhygienic cat slobber. The possibility exists that I'm permanently cootied. A levelheaded call to a responsible medical practitioner should tell me how long it takes for cat cooties to wear off. I'm hoping the doctor can steer me towards a twelve-step, cat-slobber-sharer program where commiserating with other cat-cootie-carriers is a dignified road destined for healing. From now on, though, I'm bringing a water bottle to bed, something I won't be obliged to share with noodle-shadow Ann or Betty the cat, but Drew, oh sweet Drew, can have a sip anytime she wants.