Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Perfect Stranger

During a recent book signing I had a surprising encounter. It was one of those instances when a person approaches out of the blue and directly asks an unexpected question in way that can almost be seen as confrontational. Personally, I find it rather shocking when a complete stranger addresses me directly about something that I could never have expected, especially when that perfect stranger seems every bit convinced that I can magically clarify what appears to be a delusional obsession of his own. I know I am not alone in these odd occurrences. In fact, anyone who lives in a manic urban area can expect such encounters with astonishing regularity while out and about on the streets. I can almost hear someone sarcastically say, “Isn’t the world a wonderful place.”

So you may envision the setting, I was sitting at a table with a small stack of my books that I was hoping people might be stirred with interest to read. However, this being a gathering of a number of writers, and since I was far from being the top of the bill and more of the bottom of the bucket, I spent most of my time offer hearty smiles as a line of browsing eyes casually passed me by. Then suddenly a guy marches directly up to me and demands an answer, “Is this about poker?”

Since the famous card game of poker hadn’t crossed my mind, even in the most whimsically way, while I composed my recent novel, I was inclined to deny any association and offered a sterile response of “Not really.” Perhaps I had thought my answer would be taken as a point of consideration, as if I was saying, “Not really, but you can imagine it to be whatever you want.” In reality though, my statement came out like nothing more than a splattered flat “No.”

Immediately, I realized that I should have considered my answer a little more carefully before reflexively blurting my response. I hadn’t noticed that while the man charged toward my table and as his abrupt question attempted to pin me to the chair, he had also been reaching to pick up one of my books. My negative response abruptly stayed his hand and I watched as he withdrew back into himself.

A shocking thought crossed my mind, “Am I actually turning someone away?” After all, he did approach me and his inquiry was the most attention my book has received the entire day. I may have not considered the card game while I composed the novel, but this doesn’t mean that the contents of my novel and the game of poker are completely unrelated. For one, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a book or a deck of cards, they’re both nothing but ink and paper unless someone’s interested.

Suddenly it struck me that I had just been dealt a card myself and the card was definitely wild. I had to decide whether I was going to leave that wild card a joker or whether I could make it an ace.

Before the man could turn away, I casually tugged his sleeve with a calm statement, “Well, it’s not directly about poker, but in many ways it is very much like it.”

This seemed to have caught his attention and I adjusted myself in the seat to prepare the delivery of my pitch as he sharpened his view by squinting his eyes and squared himself in preparation. “Let’s say you have a regular Saturday night poker game with your buddies. You’ve had this poker game for years. When most every aspect of your life is managed with the greatest sense of responsibility as a devoted husband, a loving father, an upright member of your community, a reliable employee of the business where you have worked for decades, you cherish the chance this game gives you for release as you let the wheels of fortune drive you along for a relaxing and refreshing night each week. And through the years this game has become a refreshment in your regular routine as invaluable as a good night’s sleep.

“Then one week, you and your wife are having an argument. Who knows, maybe there was an eruption of some underlining tension that had been building between you two all week. It’s nothing unusual. We all have times when we’re rubbed the wrong way. It’s no surprise that this rubbing is often done by the person to whom we’re the closest.

“But this Saturday, you’re determined to go to the game and she’s determined to make you feel miserable about it. You two fuss and there seems to be no hope in reaching any resolution. Every word each of you says only aggravates the other more as you two both antagonize some unsettled irritation that mysteriously lurks behind each of our lives at times. Finally, you decide you’ve got to get out of the house, so you walk outside, maybe even slamming the door which makes the tantrum feel all the more foolish. Then you jump in the car and back into the street.

“Of course you feel bad about the spat and you both know each other well enough to suspect she probably feels the same. In your mind you can even see her fiercely fuming and brooding on the couch while you’re gunning the engine down the highway. You both know it’s nothing but a lover’s quarrel but you both feel a little bit alone when you break away like this because these breaks leave you both feeling a little exposed.

“You try shrugging this off though. You know going back home right now would only fill you with a dejected sense of defeat and you convince yourself that you’re still interested in the game. You look forward to losing the sourness that has settled in your mind with the shuffling of the cards and the boisterous camaraderie between your buddies.

“The game doesn’t go as you had hoped though. There doesn’t seem to be a single hand you can win. Most of the time you’re dealt nothing but garbage, then the few times you have a good hand, you only find that someone else has something better.

“Then, when you’re considering dumping another twenty dollars to buy more chips, even though you know you’re just throwing money away at this point, your cell phone rings and it’s a call from home. None of your friends can hear the conversation, but they can tell from the relieved expression on your face that your wife is sweetly coaxing you back home. You may have been losing at cards the entire night, but you realized you still have your treasure and when you walk away from this losing game, you’re returning to the greatest happiness you have ever known.”
I pause for a moment to let the story settle clearly in his mind then add, “I don’t know if you’ve ever had a poker night like that, but if you have, you will love this book.”

And then I quietly think, “Isn’t the world a wonderful place.”

Garrett Buhl Robinson