By a Whisker

by Conrad von Metzke

If you ask me in public, I'll continue to insist that it was all Henry's fault, but the truth is that it wasn't. At the time, I felt that I needed a scapegoat, and - to paraphrase Tigger - "that's what Henrys are best at." But I plan to write a codicil into my will exonerating the poor man, and letting the world know that I did it all by myself.

In fact it shouldn't have been anybody's fault, but then again, the last time life was fair was before God had created any. By all rights it should have been a trounce. Only one of the other players knew me - Henry, of course, who wouldn't matter - and so once I drew Turkey it should have been all over. I'm sure you all know by now that I simply do not lose as Turkey - 59 for 59 and still counting. But the five new guys didn't know that, and Henry was insignificant; and so, stifling a yawn, I set off for Number Sixty.

As always, it began wonderfully. Austria was a young gawky chap named Milos, who apparently had just arrived on the train from Slovakia. The only thing worse than his tactics was his English. A quick chat with Italy, another with Russia, and Milos was gone before anybody had a chance to open the bean dip. The poor lad departed soon after, and the last we saw of him he was standing at the taxi stand reading timetables for the trains back to Bratislava....

At this point I actually had to make a decision. It happens sometimes. Italy next, or Russia? - that was the choice. It took me all of three seconds: Russia had shifted most everything north to counter England, and Italy was an even gawkier chap named Jeffie - yes, that's what he called himself. I had, of course, told him every single move to make as we dismembered Milos, and now he stood there before me, a look of sheer idol-worship on his face, waiting to see how much more time I'd allot him to bathe in the glow of the master. As it turned out, not much. I nodded knowingly to France, in whom I had previously seen a spark of ability. France winked back. Jeffie gawked. And I was merciful, thinking that perhaps Jeffie would appreciate being able to share a cab with Milos.

At about this point in any game, no matter how good one is, one needs to pause for a moment and take stock, and so I did. Austria and Italy, of course, were in the trash. Russia was stuck in the north. France and England (mostly the latter) had made severe inroads into Germany, and I was ready to steamroll into the mid-game and prepare for the inevitable. It thus became necessary to deal with Henry.

Henry was England. Henry is a nice enough person, but if truth be told, he is not terribly bright. I've played several games with him before. He brings his dog to every game - a little Schnauzer with the face of a gopher and the charm of an eggplant - and Henry's style of play reminds me a lot of the dog, somewhere between 'nondescript' and 'plodding.' It suits his personality. He is addicted to immediate gratification, and has no capacity for long-term planning. It is best, therefore, if one wants him as a pawn-cum-ally, to write his orders for him, as of course I now offered to do. Henry, much to his frequent chagrin, trusts me. If I make a deal with him and then take away a couple of his centers, he firmly believes it is for the 'greater good' of the alliance, which of course he freely admits he cannot comprehend.

Henry and I agreed (translate: I agreed, Henry and the Schnauzer looked glazed) that I would undertake to snag Russia from the rear while England and France finished up in Germany, at which point France would be pinched between Henry and me and would quickly do a passable imitation of Milos and Jeffie. And so it began, with Russia and Germany quickly making the hoped-for sounds of Rice Krispies being crushed, and my Turkish units of course fairly pouring across Europe. But suddenly I glanced to the West Med. and noted an odd event: A couple of rogue French fleets seemed to be steaming south, in complete contravention of the agreed-to plan, and wholly without my permission. "This will not do," I muttered, "Doesn't this bozo understand what is happening here?" I took him aside for a chat.

I began with a disarming gesture, offering him the chips and the bean dip, which he began to munch generously. I then followed with a gentle query: "As concerns those two fleets you have elected to move toward the south, I was wondering if you might perhaps enlighten me as to what precisely you are the hell doing?" His reply, bracketed by healthy ingestions of bean dip, was equally measured: "Simple. I'm trying to force a stalemate."

Calmly I rejoined, "@#%&!!&! WHAT?!?"

"Mind you," he continued, "I may have left it too late. I'd heard your name before, but it just didn't register until something Henry said - or was it the dog? - about your having eighty-eleven wins or whatever. Then I remembered! Well, anyway, it's worth a try. And Henry says he'll help me; says he's tired of you always taking his centers just so you can add another score." (Munch.) Henry, in the background, waved sheepishly.

"@#%@!!@! WHAT?!?"

"Mfgwblq pfwzd glb mmdsjwd..." (munch munch gulp) "do you by any chance have any more of this bean dip?"

I studied the board. Unit by unit, province by province, border by border, dust speck by dust speck, I dissected that position to a fare-thee-well. Maybe - just maybe - Eisenhower was more thorough on D-Day, but only because they paid him more. And when I'd convinced myself that every possibility, every combination, every indefinable had been taken into account, I gritted my teeth. "It's going to be close," I said to myself. "But no-one - NO-one, and least of all Henry and his idiot mutt - does this to me! I will crush. I will KILL. I will DESTROY, and mutilate and disembowel and squish and shred and...." I fairly cackled. It was one of those defining moments in one's life for which there are no words. Or else there are far too many....

Fall 1909. Solemn scowls and furrowed brows all around the board - even, perhaps, the Schnauzer. The wreckage of chip bags and bean dip tins all over the room. The French player gobbling still more of the stuff. Henry staring absently at some abstract point in the next universe. The dog stupidly licking all the empty dip cans. And I, cemented to the game board, watching it all devolve to this final turn of the game. It would end here. I had 17. France and England had 17. I had two chances: Brest and Belgium. Both were guessing games, and if I failed, the enemy backfield units would arrive at the front and it would be a stalemate. I needed just one - either would do, and Henry, poor benighted sod, would be pulp. Offal. Carrion. "A step up in the world," I mumbled, and stared at the enemy with the most withering gaze imaginable. Even the dog flinched.

"This is it," I brazened, and wrote my orders....

It was the French player's turn to read, and it was no easy task. Between handfuls of chips and bean dip smears all over everywhere, he was all but unintelligible. But one by one, the telltale moves were read, and one by one the units were moved. Henry's first - the least important, all he did was stand and support. Then mine - six critical orders, eleven meaningless ones, but even the least of them as usual oozing sheer brilliance. And finally, the French paper was produced, quickly coated with bean dip smears, and read. "F Nth S GER Bel." Damn - lost that one. It was Brest - or oblivion....

At last! "F Mid - Gas." No problem there...and then: "F Eng S GER Bel." YES! - he'd guessed it wrong! Brest was mine! The game was won! Henry was LUNCH! In my shrieking glee, I think I may have turned a cartwheel. Certainly my screech of triumph was heard a mile away as the poor, sagging French player took his bean-dip-smeared right hand and shakily moved my army Gascony into Brest - to take the center and win the game! And then - and then, for SURE, I leaped from my chair and turned a cartwheel. And danced. And flung myself all about the room, all tension gone, all decorum abandoned, reveling in the glory of the greatest moment of my life. "I won!," I screamed, "and YOU LOST! You ninnies, I WON and YOU DIDN'T! I WON I won I won I won I won......."

And the Schnauzer licked his chops. And the French player, waiting for me to take a breath, said, "Er...well...I'm sorry, I just don't see it.!"

"You don't see what?," I intoned.

"Er...well...(munch) I just don't see that you've won...."

I leaped to the table. "Right there...I took Brest...." And I stared at Brest, and there was nothing there! "The army Gascony took Brest! You supported Belgium instead...WHERE IS MY ARMY?! ...well, no matter, we'll just go back over the order sheets...WHERE ARE THE ORDER SHEETS?!"

And the Schnauzer licked his chops, his whiskers gleaming in the bright light of my doom. "Oops," said the French player, "I must have smeared some bean dip on the orders. He just loves that bean dip, you know. Do you happen to have any more?"

On clear nights, when they let me out to walk in the garden, I often reflect on eternal things. The existence of God, the meaning of life, the army that should have been in Brest....

I reflect for a while, and then I stop. There's no need, because, you know, there aren't any eternal things. There is no God or any meaning. There are only simple, transitory things. Henry. Schnauzers. Half-eaten pieces of paper.

And bean dip. There's always bean dip. In fact, that's what we're having for dinner tonight. Would you care to stay?


 

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