Tuesday, February 25, 2014

KEEPING THE WOLVES AT BAY


"It occurs to me that I am the second-youngest person here by several years," MIT proclaims. There are six men gathered in this house at Stockton Lake, and with his mostly black hair and beard, MIT could certainly pass for the baby of the group.

"Second-youngest," I am quick to note and gloat, because this is no small thing. The men in this house first gathered nearly a decade ago to play poker and be awful. A surreal, out-of-focus shag carpet added to the strange fascination of the place back then — that, and the potential for someone to die during our debauchery. That any of us have made it this far is a testament to a distracted Reaper.

I look around at my five friends. Four of them are in their 60s now; MIT is less than a year away from joining the club. But me? Ha! I have thousands of days and miles to burn before I even come close to that decrepit marker, a fact I do not let pass without notice.

"Who's 52?" asks Dave.

"That's me," I say.

"Fuck you," Dave shoots back. "You're not 52." And off we go.

I would prefer to believe Dave is surprised because most Godfathers don't reach that pinnacle until they're old — you know, like pope-old — and here's me, early 50s and at the top of my wise-guy game. Dave interjects: "I didn't know shit at 52, and you seem to know shit. That's what's throwing me off."

A look around the room tells me otherwise. These are vigorous men, men of scotch and beer and Fender Stratocasters. They've forgotten more than I'll ever know. They all laugh with great gusto; they are sturdy, and accomplished in their fields. I, on the other hand, look like Vito Corleone after a gun battle with Virgil Sollozzo's men.

Dave can't fathom I'm 52 because compared to these guys, I look like I'm closing in on the 70s Club, white-haired and wizened and not at all wise. I am a visual caution for everyone who's ever been put up wet after a night of hard riding: do too much of that shit and this is what you'll look like in the end.

Make no mistake, the nights of hard riding are fun, and once I start it still takes a lot to get me to stop. I know enough not to gallop far down certain paths, but I'm a reporter, for god's sake, engineered to be curious about the envelope of existence and its edges. That kind of work requires a junky, someone hooked through the bag on the best high of all — delicious, pernicious adrenaline. Enough jolts of that stuff and the nervous system goes crisp like Coco and you burn up from the inside out. Relatively speaking, it's not a bad way to go.

I glance in the bathroom mirror, where the light casts funky shadows on my cheeks and highlights the bags under my eyes. This is me at Jesus + 20. Good Christ, no wonder I've scared off the ladies.

A man with more vanity would immediately recoil from the physical horrors and hire a personal trainer. With me that's a waste of everyone's time; my vanity is the Train in Vain, where alone I keep the wolves at bay.

The man staring at me from the mirror winks an idea: go ahead, shave that head and go full Heisenberg, you know it's time, it's past time, you wanker. Full measures only from here on out. Who wants to live long enough to be old? Make them remember you this way.

"Screw that noise," I say to him. In the next room, the men who are my friends are laughing, getting ready to kick my ass in poker. They sound young. No one dies this night, despite our best efforts.

Now I am 53. The biggest turning commences.

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