Level 11: Zach

“But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,” said Frodo.

Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. “You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin—to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours—closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”

— The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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Zach D. Booz (yes that’s his real name) is a total stud. He’s a talented singer and amazing at ultimate frisbee. Before he got sick we played Dungeons and Dragons every week and danced our asses off on the weekends. Zach is my dance pupil. I’ve taught him everything I know about shakin’ booty and he soaked it up like a sponge. If we’re in the club watch out cos the place about to het highfy!

MP and I talked for a while longer about mothers and the like. He said he couldn’t remember his, but we were both pretty sure he had one. It seemed almost everyone did. He kept offering me water and I kept turning him down. “Water brings hiccups,” I told him, “and hiccups bring Black Riders.” MP didn’t like to think his water was anything but refreshing, but I assured him it was true. Water could be as deadly as it was essential.

“Well, there’s more in the ground than bones,” said MP. “And even the wise can’t see all ends.”

“You’re quoting Augustus McCrae and Gandalf?” I asked. “I didn’t know you could read.”

“Sure I can,” said MP proudly, “Deets taught me.”

“Deets can’t read.” I said.

“Shows how much you know.” Replied the filter smugly.

Little did I know, a million miles away in another part of town, my good friend and invincible weapon was worried about me.

“I’m worried about Nathan.” Said Zach to Samantha, his super hot girlfriend.

“Why?” She asked distractedly. She was scrolling through a Peyton Manning fan site, seeing how his rehabilitation was going.

On the absolute worst day of this story, when I was hallucinating and thrashing like a madman, Zach showed up to my apartment with Samantha. They cleaned my kitchen and talked me down from a psychotic episode. When I was sane enough to understand speech Samatha said, “You need to shower, shave, put some clothes on and get some sun.”
“Why?” I replied. “Do I stink?”
“No, because those things feel good.”
She was right. I started doing it every day. The fact that I am tan for the first time in my life is because of Samantha. Thank you, darlin’.

“We haven’t gamed in weeks. That’s not like him.” He was referring to our Wednesday night Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

“I think I need to go over there.” Said Zach.

“Now?” Whined Samantha. “But we just got all snuggly.”

“Sorry babe, my Dungeon Master needs me.” He pulled out his phone and fired off a text.

Back in my apartment I had pulled out my worn copy of Lonesome Dove and was yelling at MP. The thing was so loved the cover had fallen off along with the first few pages. I’d thrown the cover away but kept the precious text paper clipped to the rest of the book. “Look!” I barked at MP, “Right here in Chapter 8 it says, ‘Simply writing ‘Deets’ on the sign didn’t work. Deets couldn’t read either, but he could see that his name was far too short in comparison with the others. At least it was short in comparison with the other names on the sign, and Deets wanted to know why.’ See?” I said, “He couldn’t read the sign because Deets can’t read.”

“Then how do you explain the fact that I can?” Said MP.

“Circular reasoning!” I pointed an accusing finger at the stubborn old codger.

“Simmer down, pardner,” cautioned MP, “water ain’t the only thing that causes hiccups.”

“Deets can’t read.” There was no way I was backing off until MP admitted I was right and told me how he’d really learned his letters.

“The language of friendship ain’t words but meanings.” Said MP. He tipped his hat and winked then clicked his tongue.

Don’t be confused. In my story I describe the triple filtration system of the Multi Pure Drinking Water System and finish with: “All of this was packed into a cylinder and then loaded into a stainless steel container so sexy DeLoreans got jealous.” You’re no doubt looking at this picture and wondering where the stainless steel container is. Well, I wield a Multi Pure counter top unit. It’s made of plastic so as to be lighter and more portable. The real deal is shiny and sparkles like Perseus’ shield.

MP, my plucky water filter friend.

“Non sequitur,” I said accusingly. “You’re worse than my — hiccup — mom.” I set him down roughly and turned to leave. “Don’t drip all over the — hiccup — the sink. My mom just cleaned it.” I hunch-back waddled back into my apartment and grabbed my phone off the floor. I checked it and found a message from Zach.

Z: Catan?

N: Yes!

Z: See you in 30.

Sure I was wretched, sure I was sick, sure I’d been vomiting blood for four days. That didn’t mean I couldn’t play a board game.

I looked around the parts of my apartment my mom hadn’t cleaned and considered trying to straighten things up. In the end I figured there was no point. Good friends knew you were a slob even if you picked up your clothes before they came over. At least my kitchen was clean. I got out my card table and a folding chair then pulled out my wooden, 15th anniversary edition of Settlers of Catan. The thing was one of my most prized possessions. Before Robbie left for South America we played at least a thousand games on it. A bottle of vodka and endless rolls of the dice. I sure did miss him.

The greatest board game ever invented. Thank you Klaus Teuber!

I unclasped the brass latch and opened the beautiful, red box. Inside, stacked in an ordered row, were the wooden hexagons that comprised the mythical island of Catan. Six neat bins held the brightly colored roads, settlements and cities players used to expand their empires. The box smelled faintly of sawdust and summer. I felt like a kid every time I opened it.

Like God I reached down from on high and began fashioning a two player island. I separated land from sea and raised mountains from the earth. I cast wheat upon the ground, then sang it into maturity. Mighty trees rose up from the earth and stretched their arms in worship. I un-made Babylon, returning it to the muddy pits from whence it came. Then I shat on a few tiles and some sheep sprang up. I looked upon my creation and saw that it was good. Everything except the sheep, those things were worthless. I placed the wooden numbers on each of the randomized tiles and set the ports around the outside. Then I decided to be clever.

Every copy of The Settlers of Catan included a bunch of cheat sheets. On these tiles were printed the costs of various things you could buy with the resources your society produced. New players needed the cards and referred to them constantly, but experienced gods knew the list by heart. It was a big moment when a player got through his first game without a list. I decided to place a price sheet alongside Zach’s orange pieces, then I could chide him for being a n00b. I dug through the remaining tiles looking for a price list. Instead I found her note.

Little Ex was actually my Big Ex, but I couldn’t call her that. She was just too small and beautiful. The wooden set had cost a pretty penny, but I didn’t buy it. I’d wanted to but couldn’t bring myself to spend the money, not when I already owned a cardboard copy of the game. So Little Ex bought it for me. She always knew exactly how to make me happy. Her ‘I love you’s’ were first rate. I kept the note she included with the gift buried under the rarely used price lists and 5-6 player tiles. I was masochistic that way.

Dearest Nathan-

Spiderman is red,

Dark elves are blue,

My happiest days

Are when I’m with you!


Little Ex

Brutal. I’d been terrible to Little Ex. Not to her face, but in secret. My hidden crimes eventually tore us a part and here was a nasty reminder when I needed it least. Little Ex and I had been broken up for about seven months. I wanted her back but didn’t know how to go about it. Things were too far gone, everything was broken. She was coming over on Sunday, I didn’t know why. I put the price list back with the misfit tiles and slid the note underneath. I didn’t feel like being funny anymore.

Zach had said he’d be over in half an hour, that meant I had an hour to watch a draft video. Time moved differently for Zach. Zach Time was full of fruit juice and high fives. A butterfly was a perfectly good reason to miss a job interview and homework could always be done tomorrow. If you needed Zach to be somewhere at a certain time, you had to lie to him and tell him the event started earlier than it actually did. It drove Samantha nuts, but I loved it. Zach Time was the right time if you asked me. Funny how you could hate something when your mom did it, but find it endearing in a friend. It was because I loved him. When you loved someone their foibles started looking like dinner rolls, something extra you got to enjoy before the meal.


Love Potion No. 2

Dinner Rolls

I am a 32 year old man boy and in my time I’ve watched a lot of marriages blossom or die. There was a time about ten years ago when I found myself standing in seven weddings over the course of a single year. Standing, that doesn’t count all the ceremonies I attended. While true love still eludes me I have kept my eyes open, learning from the successes and failures of my friends. One of the most important lessons I’ve picked up is that people don’t change. This is not an absolute truth, but it’s accurate enough most of the time.

People don’t change. I like to think this disease has been a turning point for me, but don’t be surprised if you come over some day and find me slamming boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch between bowls of spaghetti. Old habits die hard. That’s true for every one, and especially important for girls to note.

When it comes to love women are hopelessly optimistic. This is a generalization, but generalizations are not a bad thing. In fact, they’re necessary for survival.

Argument: Not all floors are solid, but we assume they are in almost every case. There exist dilapidated floors that might give way were you to step on them, sending you crashing to your death, but if you live your life as if this was a common occurrence you would have to test every step before taking it. You could never move forward. I say this because I’m about to make some sweeping generalizations about women.

Women are better at commitment than men. This is because each of the sexes has a different job when it comes to the genetic imperative. Men are wired to spread their seed. We want to grow as strong and wealthy as possible so that we can have a large harem and the tribe will survive. In the early days it was the man with the most camels who got to breed. This wasn’t because he was a selfish douche, it was because he was best suited to provide for his offspring. You could mate with a legless gimp, but your children would likely die of starvation. After 10,000 or so years of this brutal struggle   things began to change, unfortunately people don’t change, or change more slowly than their environment.

Today that gimp could very well be a stud. He might be Stephen Hawking, rich and renowned, fully capable of giving his children every advantage. For a long time it was the strong who were most able to provide. Now Michael Jordan can’t hold a candle to Bill Gates. After 10,000 years of persecution we are witnessing the triumph of the nerd. Today we live in a softer world. It is now better to breed diversity into society than strength. In the absence of predators, mutts live longer than pure breds. Monogamy is now better than plurality, but we’re still wired like our brutish ancestors. We’re still trying to collect as big a harem as possible.

And so men cheat. I’m not excusing it, I’m explaining it. Our loins are programmed to come in any trollop who allows it. We want to spread our seed as often as we can. This is one of the many reasons men are so drawn to pornography, you can have a new girl every time you fire up your computer!

Women are different, they want to be protected. Pregnancy is a brutal affair. For nine months the girl swells and vomits until a baby bursts out of her. Then the hard part begins. Imagine Ruth, a lovely woman from the Bible. Ruth doesn’t have formula or baby bottles. She has to nurse and nursing is difficult, impossible even. I know because my sister has a newborn. A few weeks back I got to go to North Dakota and meet my beautiful niece. She’s amazing, but she sucks at eating. Turns out she has an extra flap of skin that prevents her from latching onto my sister’s breast. The doctors clipped it, but she’s still not great. Now imagine the time before modern medicine. Tying is not the only problem babies can have. There’s colic, reverse cycling, inverted nipples, blocked milk ducts, thrush and a host of other problems; and this assumes the mother is healthy and well fed to begin with! Breast feeding is hard. That’s why queens had wet nurses and most women today bottle feed. Breast feeding requires patience, food and tons of time. If you get it wrong and you’re living in the world before breast pumps, your kid dies. Pretty brutal.

So women stay home and feed the future of the clan while the men go out and hunt, gather, farm and build. There didn’t used to be another option. Men don’t have breasts and breast feeding is a ferocious, full time gig. For 10,000 years if you couldn’t handle it, if the proper assets were not in place, your baby died. Women quickly learned to seek out the strongest men who were most capable of providing. Their hope was to find someone who would love them forever and take care of them while they raised their children. Today things are different. A mom can squirt out a kid under anesthesia, ship the brat off to day care and be back to work by the end of the month. I’m not saying that’s the best plan, but it’s an option that didn’t exist before. Today the world has changed. People have not.

So women are wired for fidelity and men want to breed. It’s not evil, it’s just a fact. Because of this, women are hopelessly optimistic. They want to make things work. They want to change their man. But people don’t change. One of the secrets to a happy marriage is not to find someone who is perfect— there’s no such thing— or to find someone you can mold into your ideal mate— because people don’t change— the secret is to find a person whose deficiencies count as bonuses in your book.

I’d do pretty well married to Zach. I see him as a creative inspiration. His tangents and their associated adventures bring me joy. I like it when he’s late because it means he was doing something interesting. Samantha, Zach’s beautiful girl friend, finds these same traits annoying, and with good reason. But 10,000 years of conditioning has taught her to persevere, to stick it out in hopes that Zach will change. He’s a viral stud fully capable of taking care of her and her babies; but Zach won’t change. My advice to her is the same as my advice to you. Accept Zach for who he is or dump him. Find someone whose vices are delicious, whose tardiness is not a detriment but a dinner roll at a fancy restaurant; lightly scented with lavender; your favorite part of the meal.

You don’t have to take my advice. You can ignore my words or call me a simpleton, but you’ll be fighting against reality and that rarely goes well. Embrace the world as it is and learn to work within its constraints. It’s easier to swim with the current than against it. At the very least you’re more likely to enjoy your meal.

Back to the story.

“’Sup, dude!” Zach knocked on my window. He was late, but Zach was always late. I’d spent the time studying a draft video. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it to tomorrow’s tournament, but you never knew.

“Hey man. I’ll let you in.” I kept my jeans from falling  off with one pale hand and tried to walk down the hall without limping. I put everything I had into opening the door. I didn’t want Zach to know how weak I’d become.

Zach smiled his goofy, half grin and came through the door, “Where you been, man? I miss you.”

“Sick,” I said as jovially as I could.

“That’s what Nate said. How you feeling now?” We walked down the hall back to my apartment.

“I don’t know, pretty good. Two nights ago I kept down two sips of water so I think I’m on the mend.”

Zach kind of paused, I could see him processing what I’d said. “You can’t drink water?”

We entered my apartment and I closed the door, “No, I can. Sort of. But it hurts.”

A friend will come into your apartment and be polite. He’ll ask to use the bathroom and try not to make a mess. A good friend will come in and shit the place up without apologizing. Zach went straight for the refrigerator and started rooting around. “Dude, who cleaned your ‘fridge?”

“Me,” I lied.

Zach laughed. “Whatever. You have a new girlfriend or something?”

“My mom.”

“Your mom?” He came out of the kitchen with my 64 oz bottle of blueberry Naked juice in his hand. I had drank a swallow or two but thrown them up. The bottle was still full. “Why’s your mom in Denver?”

“Cos I’m sick.”

He looked at me again for the first time, sickly and hunched, holding my skinny jeans with a trembling hand. “How sick?”

I shook my head to let him know I didn’t know, “I haven’t eaten in five days.”

Zach looked at the juice in his hand and started to put it back.

“Drink it man.” I told him. “In fact, take it home. The chiropractor told me I shouldn’t have any.”

“The chiropractor?”

“I was vomiting blood for four days. My mom’s friend’s grand daughter went through the same thing and this guy fixed her.”

Zach put the bottle down and came into my room, “Dude.” He sat down on the chair in front of his orange Catan pieces. “You gonna be OK?”

“Totally. I’m better, now. I kept down two sips of water the other night.”

The funny part was I actually believed this. I had never before been so sick filtered water couldn’t cure me.

“Two sips.” Repeated Zach. He was staring at the board without seeing it, thinking about what I’d said. Zach processed things slowly. He took his time and thought about everything from every angle. It took him months to buy a pair of shoes. That’s scientific. Months to buy a single pair of shoes. I don’t even want to think about how long he pondered his new pair of glasses.

I tried to cheer him up. “It was hilarious. I was so thirsty. I had this glass of water on my window sill and as the ice melted it shifted. The clacking cubes woke me up out of a dead sleep and I grabbed the glass so fast I didn’t know I’d done it.”

Zach sat there looking at me. He didn’t say a word.

“Seriously, man I’m—” I went silent as a stabbing pain shoved its way through my guts. It was so powerful I bent sideways. I closed my eyes and tried not to pass out. For me this was nothing new. I’d been doing it for days, but Zach hadn’t seen it yet. His face went screwy.

“Dude.” He said, I could tell he wanted to take me to the hospital.

“It’s OK,” I said through clenched teeth. “I’m better now. I can drink water.” I picked up the two six siders and let them fall. It came up with the number five, not bad. We were aiming for low rolls. In Catan it was better to place your settlements last. Zach stared at me for a while, trying to look inside my skin. “Let’s play,” I said. He picked up the dice cautiously with his fingers, each one a study in how a hand should look. I had always wanted to draw Zach’s hands or, had I been a girl, to have them inside me. He was about as close to a perfect specimen as a human could get.

I’ve spoken to Zach about that night and neither of us remembered anything clearly. I was pretty sure he eeked out a victory, which was a big deal. I’d been playing Catan obsessively for years. I’d literally logged hundreds of games on line and more than that with Robbie. The box claimed Settlers of Catan was a game for three to six players but it was wrong. Two player games were just as fun, maybe  more so. You got to study your opponent, to learn his psychology. Take Robbie for instance, he played a tactical game with safe moves. He only risked roads when absolutely necessary and played knights when he was certain to steal the card he needed from your hand. I on the other hand loved to screw people over. I’d hold tons of cards, betting against the robber on the off chance I could explode out of nowhere and strangle my opponent in a single play. Zach’s style was like water. He’d dance insidiously along the coast, penetrating where he could and biding his time. He didn’t attack directly, but cast his net wide so he could snare more fish. It had been awesome to watch his style develop. When I first taught him the game he was a mess. Everyone was when they first learned to play Catan. It was a pretty deep game and abstract in the extreme. People either loved it or gave up after losing several times. Zach was the former and now he was good enough to take on an old pro. Seemed my career was coming to an end. That was OK. Maybe the front office would give me a job as general manager, like the Broncos had done for Elway.

The game passed slowly with plenty of breaks for conversation and gut wrenching pain.

“You excited for your trip?” I asked. Zach was about to leave for the summer. Some company or non-profit was paying him to lead a bunch of kids on a bike ride all over Sweden. The previous summer he had led a similar group up the east coast near New York. He’d done such a good job that the company had given him a promotion. It didn’t mean he got paid more, but he did get to go to Europe for free.

“Yeah, man. Stoked.” In the game, Zach had somehow managed to build a little empire along the coast with a thriving merchant class and all the ports a civilization could need. It was going to take a lot of knights to slow him down.

“How’s Samantha taking it?” Samantha was pretty needy. We both knew the summer was going to be hell for her.

“I mean, she’s happy and all…” He paused, considering how to phrase his thoughts.

“But,” I said, sending him an easy volley he could return without thinking.

“But she’s sad that I’ll be gone for so long.”

“That’s good, right?” I asked. “If she didn’t miss you it’d be a bad thing.”

“I guess,” said Zach. He rolled the dice. “I just wish she was happy for me.”

“It’s a big accomplishment,” I said.

“It is,” he agreed.

“Samantha needs stability.” I said, “Guys have been ass holes to her and she’s skittish. She’s scared you’re going to hurt her.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“You’re not going to change her, man. She’s never going to be happy when you leave on an adventure.”

“I know,” said Zach. He’d heard Love Potion No. 2 more times than he could count.

As the game progressed I attacked as often as possible. I bought every knight I could afford and sent the robber skipping across his territories, but this only worked for so long. Catan was fascinating in that you couldn’t destroy anything. Once a settlement or road had been built, there is no way to un-build it. In most games the object was to destroy your opponent. You started with a full board and by the end of the match very few pieces remained. The last man standing won. Catan was different. As the game moved towards conclusion all the players had bigger empires than they started with. The board started out relatively empty and ended up crowded and bustling, with players bickering over desert wastelands full of sheep. The closest you could come to attacking your opponent was to buy knights and force the robber to sit on his territories instead of your own. This didn’t destroy what he had built, it just stopped his land from producing for a while. Catan was so positive, so like real life.

By the time Zach won it was past 11. Normally that meant I was just getting started. Normally I had at least three more games in me. Tonight was different. “Sorry, man. That’s all I’ve got.” I said.

“S’alright,” said Zach. “I’m just glad you’re feeling better. Dungeons and Dragons next week?”

“For sure,” I said. In reality, by the time the next Wednesday rolled around I would be in the hospital after coming as close to suicide as I’d ever been. It would literally be months before Zach and I gamed again. Sauron wasn’t done with me yet. Not by a long shot.

“Samantha and I are going to a Rockies game on Saturday, you wanna come?”

“Definitely, I could use some vitamin ‘H’.” The ‘H’ was for hot dogs and in my opinion there was no better place to eat them than at Coors field. The classic brick architecture and green grass transported you back to simpler times when parents didn’t get divorced and gang members fought with knives. After the NUCCA dude fixed me I’d eat some Taco Bell, get to bed early then wake up and watch the Rockies get their brains beat out by Seattle. Or, you know, curl up into a ball and slowly die over the next five days.

Zach left and I climbed into the shower, dreaming of tomorrows full of mexican pizzas and rum.

to be continued

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