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Vacation Week / Born Loser, Chapter One

Good morning, all.  Normally Mondays are when I post a Hipster Holy Grail review, but this week I'm really under the gun to finish writing the first draft of my next book / balance life against an explosion of work at my day job.  So, I'm taking the week off from my blog.

Instead of my normal movie-bitching habits, I'm taking my wife's suggestion to post some sample content from my latest book, Born Loser.  I'll post the first three chapters, and if you like what you see, please go to and buy the full thing.

Join me again in about a week for more regular content.  In the meantime, enjoy (part of) Born Loser!

Chapter One

Before I tell you about the bank robbery, I should tell you a few things about board games.

First, board games are ruthless. You come to the table for a night of fun? Fine, but you’re gonna lose.

Like me. I’m a loser.

You see, every game basically has three rules. One: The right set of balls and a good poker face will get you everywhere. Two: Make sure you know what the real goal is, and don’t get distracted. And three: If you want to make friends, then make friends. But if you want to win.... Win.

And that’s the problem. I go to the table to make friends.

Let’s be perfectly clear:  I’m not talking about Candyland.  I’m talking Rex.  1830.  Diplomacy.  Competition.  Manipulation.  Deceit.  Betrayal.  These aren’t the kind of games you take lightly.  These aren’t the kind of games you have a beer over.  These are games that can end relationships.
Unless you’re a guy like me – a guy who loses.  You have to lose and lose often. Lose again and again until one day you stop caring about winning, and then you can start to have some fun.  You and all the other losers.

It’s not easy.

You might say, “Good game,” when it’s all over.  You’ll shake hands.  You’ll shrug and pretend to be a good sport.  But deep down, you know it wasn’t a good game.  If it was a good game, you’d have won.  But you didn’t.  You lost, and now you’ve got that nasty acid feeling in the pit of your chest.  It’s a feeling of injustice – because that’s not how your story was supposed to end tonight.

It’s shame, that’s what it is.  You know the exact moment when you screwed up.  Sometimes you know it when it’s happening, but most times you don’t until it’s too late.  It’s that one card you didn’t play.  That one dice roll that was one number off.  That one trade that you should have accepted – or rejected.  That one fucking move.

And that feeling lingers with you for hours.  If it was a really close game, you might not even get to sleep that night.  You’ll just stare at the ceiling and relive that moment over and over while your stomach tries to eat its way out of your gut.  Even your organs can’t stand to bear your shame.
You lost.  And it sucks so hard.  The only thing that makes it remotely sufferable is the simple fact that some day – maybe not soon, but some day – you might get to try again.

And then you’ll lose.  Again.  And again.  Until you’re at home.  Until your failure is a warm blanket that you can pull around yourself.  And then you keep pulling that blanket around you tighter and tighter until it frays and wears through.  And some day, when it’s in tatters and you’ve forgotten that you were trying to win, you might have a good night at the table.

Until then, losing’s a bitch.

Sometimes you feel yourself getting humble while it happens.  But sometimes…  sometimes, it makes you even pettier.  Sometimes you feel the jealousy burn in your veins.  Sometimes, instead of being just another gamer who enjoys the thrill of competition, the guy you lost to last week is a scumbag.

A real douchebag.  An asshole.  A villain.

That might be the most important thing you need to know about board games.  Just like war, every game has a narrative – and depending on whose side you’re on, the good guys are either the winners or the losers.  The truth is a lot messier, and a hell of a lot more frustrating.

So, the bank robbery.  It wasn’t my idea.

Me, I’m not a criminal type.  Crime takes too much nerve.  Hell, I’ve barely got enough backbone to talk to women.  How’s a guy like me going to go in a bank and stick a gun in anybody’s face?
Jesus, I couldn’t even stand to be part of white-collar crime.  I can just see myself now, sitting at my desk and clacking away at my keyboard, embezzling lunch money from my company and looking over my shoulder every ten seconds as my pits gush stank all over my last good shirt.

No, that’s not for me.  Never could be.  Not unless there was a woman involved.

Which, of course, there was.

If only I was Dashiell Hammett.  Lacey Tsai was worthy of a nice monologue.  All I can think to say is, damn, she had a nice ass.  Too bad I was always so busy hoping to see more of it that I never noticed how badly she was crushing me at Game Night.

Lacey was the best (or worst) kind of competition.  She was always a few steps ahead, always had a Plan B, and – perhaps most importantly – always had a smile.  Gorgeous, stunning, and completely disguising the horror she was planning to unleash.

Lacey was not part of the regular Game Night rotation.  She showed up at random.  After awhile, the chance to see her – even more than the fact that Mark and I had been friends since freshman year at college – became the main reason I went to Game Night.

Mark Whittle.  Let me tell you a few things about Mark.

First of all, the guy was loaded.  His parents ran a successful law firm in Washington, specializing mostly in aviation law.  Seriously, aviation law.  How does that happen?  Who gets out of law school in their mid-twenties and says, “Gee, better pick a specialty.  Hmm, let’s see… oh, I don’t know, how about airplanes?”

Well, however the hell they decided, that’s what they did.  A pretty good racket, too, from what I could see.  Mark wanted for nothing.  More importantly, when he graduated with an MBA and had his own peculiar ideas, they were happy to fork over a tidy stack of start-up cash.

Mark owned and operated a factory in Middle River.  Frozen foods.  Chicken, mostly.  Basically, his strategy was to take all the tidbits that the Perdue factories on the Eastern Shore didn’t want, add a special blend of secret herbs and spices, and turn them around into cheap (but edible) globs of frozen paste that he could sell for a gut-churning profit.  His customers were mostly schools and prisons.

Whittle Enterprises was doing fine.  Mark owned three houses – that I know of.  One was in Middle River, right next to the factory.  He stayed there on weekdays when he wanted to be sure he could keep track of the business.  One was a small vacation home on the Eastern Shore. Possibly this was also to keep track of business, but I’m not current on the goings-on of chicken anus dealings.
The third house was an incredible four-story mansion in Federal Hill, one of maybe two or three neighborhoods in Baltimore that doesn’t scare white people.  Federal Hill was where Mark hosted Game Night every Friday and Saturday.

So here’s another thing you should know about Mark.  As rich as the dude was – and please, do not underestimate how disgustingly, frustratingly, mind-numbingly rich the man was, I swear to God, he had like seven Roombas just so he could use up all the dwarves’ names from Snow White – he was a surprisingly down-to-Earth guy.

Mark was a ninja millionaire.  The kind of guy that somebody introduces to you at a party, and you shake his hand and start talking about any crazy thing you think, and you start laughing with him and the two of you start spilling your whiskey on each other in a drunk stupor, and you’re completely oblivious that you’re ruining his designer trousers while he’s only ruining your K-Mart blue light special.  Then you wake up on his living room couch the next morning and you go into the kitchen and talk to his wife, Sarah, who’s making hangover eggs for both you and Mark, and you suddenly realize just how big his house is, and how expensive everything must be.  And that’s when it hits you like a sack of bricks that this guy could buy and sell your ass – but honestly, he’s just happy to have a drink with you.

Mark made friends the way most people make beds.  Game Night had its regulars, sure, but there were always new faces.  Every other week there was somebody he met and invited over on a whim.  Just somebody.  They were people he met at college, people he met at the community theater (where he sometimes performed), people he met at the checkout lane at the grocery store.

But most of all, they were people he met at the game store.  Top-Table Games.  Our Mecca, you might say.

Top-Table Games had tabletop gaming on Friday afternoons, which would naturally segue into tabletop gaming on Friday nights.  And naturally, you wouldn’t want to pass up a chance to go to Federal Hill and enjoy the rich dude’s free booze while losing at Dominion, would you?

Ah, Top-Table Games.  A Mom ‘n Pop nestled in between the row-homes of Baltimore.  In this case, the Mom and Pop in question were actually just an unmarried couple living in sin.  Clara Thorne and David Troup.  Good people.  Clara was a regular at Game Night.  I think she got along fabulously with Mark because she shared his entrepreneurial spirit.  David on the other hand… well, David was a bit off.  He was usually grousing about the government and black helicopters.  Kind of a creep, if I’m being honest.

There were some crazy nights at the Whittle Mansion.  I remember one time he had no less than fifty-three people packed into his house.  It was like he was trying to win a contest or something.  You can’t play a game with fifty-three people, obviously, so we all split off into little breakout groups of four to six, claimed a game, and went to it.

Mark had this huge display case for all his board games in his living room.  You couldn’t miss it.  This thing was the focal point of the room.  No lie – the entire room was designed around it.  It was a monolith.  A monument to gaming.  The thing stretched up into the center of a vaulted ceiling, it was four feet wide on each side, and there was actually one of those rolling ladders that you see in multi-story libraries set up so you could get to the top shelves.

One time, we started pulling all the games off the shelves so we could find out just how many he actually had.  We were well into triple digits, but sometime after we got knee-deep in stacks on the floor, we lost count.  Not because there were so many, but because Sarah came in through the front door with another armful of new acquisitions.

The point is, there were plenty of choices.  Even with fifty-three people.

So we each ran and grabbed a game – or five – and set up shop.  My God, that was a sight to see.  The unrestrained nerd of it all.  There were gamers sitting on the kitchen counters, gamers sitting on the floor.  They were playing Betrayal at Hill House on his bed.  They were playing Settlers of Cataan on his toilet.

That night was special.  Partly it was because fifty-three people tend to make a lot of noise, and so when the cops were inevitably called, I got to see the look on a police officer’s face when he opens a door and sees four dozen twenty-somethings sprawled out on the floor throwing dice at each other.  Partly it was because that was the first night I met Lacey.

“Met” is perhaps too strong a word.  I was on one of the kitchen teams, sitting in the corner and playing a lousy game of Fluxx.  Don’t get me wrong – Fluxx is a fine ice-breaker.  But you want to talk about strategy?  Forget about it.  Fluxx is a game that plays itself.  You get about as much out of it as you do with televised golf.  Which is to say, you might try it for a few minutes, but any longer than that and you’ll lose your damn mind.

So there I was, stuck in the corner with a couple of Mark’s new “friends,” trying to convince them that we should try Battlestar Galactica or Space Alert or, hell, even goddamn Monopoly, when Lacey walked through the front door.

I won’t forget that moment.  It was that lovely slow-motion moment where the breeze caught her hair perfectly and tossed it just right, with the door behind her framing her physique symmetrically.  It was a glamour shot, and I had only my memory to serve as a camera.

For an eternal second, I was stuck in an alternate universe where I marched across the room and introduced myself, then led her away to my apartment where we made love for hours, then dated for months, then got married, had seven kids, grew old together, and died while holding each other’s hands in an eternal commitment of union.

But what actually happened was one of the Fluxx guys said, “Let’s play again!” and Lacey was escorted off to some other group, possibly never to be seen again.

I asked Mark about her later.  “Who was that woman that came over last night?”

“Which woman?” An honest question.  And not even a filthy one – Mark is the only guy I knew who could have a little black book that was entirely non-sexual.  Sarah was as much into games as he was – it was probably the reason they got married in the first place – and she trusted him completely to have a dozen twenty-three year old big-breasted co-eds running around his place at one in the morning.  We all knew that if you went to check up on them, the worst you’d do was walk in on a particularly spicy game of Cranium.

“The one that looked like a supermodel?” I said.  “She was probably late twenties, gorgeous, maybe Chinese?  Had a blue dress?”

“Hmm,” he said, and then he thought for a long time before he added, “I don’t think I know any Chinese women.”  And it was an honest reply.

Because here’s another thing about Mark – as friendly as the guy was, as successful as he was, as talented at sales and profits and money management as he was, as social as he was, Mark was a giant doofus.

The dude just had no emotional skill.  I guess you might say he had Asperger’s, if you like armchair diagnostics.  Or maybe it was just that he could afford to be callous.  Either way, there were times when it seemed like Mark didn’t really view people as people.  More that they were temporary bodies to fill seats.

And that’s probably why there were only a handful of regulars at Game Night.  Once you took all the acquaintances out of the picture, the two- or three-timers, you just had five of us:  Mark, Sarah, Me, Clara, and John Cramer (he’s the one who worked at the bank).  Nine times out of ten, you’d go to Game Night and see us five jackasses, plus one or two extras.

For a while, anyway.

The trouble started when Lacey became one of those extras.  When I finally saw her again at Game Night, I was all too pleased to strike up conversation.

“So, how’d ya know Mark?” I said after shaking her hand, stumbling over myself and probably spilling my drink.

And she just smiled with her straight, tidy teeth and said, “I’m the Production Manager at his factory.”

I turned to Mark and I said, “She’s your Production Manager, and you told me you didn’t know any Chinese women?”

Then Mark just furrowed a brow and said, “But she’s not Chinese.  She’s Taiwanese.”

By the time I looked back to Lacey, her smile was gone and she was concentrating on a rule book.  That probably should have been my first clue that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with her.

Lacey showed up about once every three weeks at first.  Fortunately for me, she was always single when she came.  Never had a guest with her.  Except for once or twice when she brought a (girl)friend, and then I was twice as likely to lose.

So for about a year, we got to know each other through micro-conversations at Game Night.  Never a proper discussion.  Never the sort of chat that leads to a good opportunity to ask somebody out.  But we got to know each other, anyway.

We flirted the way that all single people in their twenties do – not as subtly as you’d like, and more as a precaution than an intention.

There was one time in November when I was thinking I was finally going to go for broke and ask her out.  Mark told me ahead of time that she’d be there, so I had the rest of the week to psyche myself up.

Then Friday night rolled around, and Lacey came through the front door with her blue dress and her gorgeous smile… and Drew.

“Hiya folks!” he said.  He threw out for a handshake like he was jabbing you with a right hook.

Drew Sturges.  Tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, intelligent, funny, handsome, wealthy, self-sufficient, confident, successful Drew Sturges.

I hated him from the beginning.  A guy like that coming to Game Night… really, why bother unless you were there to rub it in for everyone else?

I didn’t know if Lacey and Drew were screwing.  I never asked – because really, how can you ask a thing like that?  But think about it.  Mark and Sarah, Clara and David, me and John – we were all just regular-looking people.  Ordinary.  None of us ugly; just plain.  A little too much fat.  A little too rough skin.  A little too lopsided a gait.

Ah, but Lacey and Drew… these were the sort of beautiful people who graced magazine covers.  They were of a certain genetic strain that could only exist if other beautiful people, like themselves, went off to procreate, and knowing this, it was practically their duty to date each other.

So, I just assumed they were together.  It was probably accurate.  And even if it wasn’t, Drew seemed confident it soon would be.

The first time he showed up to Game Night, we played The Manhattan Project.  He crushed us.  And that’s when he confirmed everything I suspected: the guy was an asshole.

Now, for once, I’m not being pissy or jealous.  Sure, I might have been an insecure wallflower projecting things onto Drew because I was too wimpy to ask Lacey out, but that’s not why I’m saying he was an asshole.  He was an asshole because he’s the kind of son of a bitch who’d hoard all the relic cards in a game of Arcana even though he didn’t need them just so he could see you get angry and then laugh in your face when he made it completely impossible to beat you.

Drew was a winner.  He was the only person at Game Night that never lost a game.  Not that we kept track of all the statistics.  But he never lost.  It was just the one thing you knew for certain.  If Drew showed up at Game Night – which started to happen pretty damn often pretty damn quickly – it meant that you were really fighting for second place.

And he knew it.  The son of a bitch knew it.  That’s why he was an asshole.  Because he’d show up, sit next to Lacey, leer in your face, and remind you that the game was already a foregone conclusion.
Drew was never there to make friends.  And so Drew never lost.

It was Drew’s plan to rob the bank.