BY JON WESICK
Copyright is held by the author.
THE BEATEN-DOWN drunk hunched over his glass. His face was the colour of bread dough and his precious moment at the bar his only respite between eight hours of humiliation and a complaining wife. A guy in a frayed ball cap put a quarter in the jukebox and played a John Mellencamp song from the days when the singer still had a big cat’s middle name.
“Hey!” a voice from the back of the bar said. “Turn that off!”
“It’s my money and I can listen to whatever I want!”
The bartender tapped a baseball bat on the counter for emphasis. He had a shaved head, chest-length beard, and body like an M1 Abrams tank.
“Here’s your quarter back.” The bartender tossed the music lover a coin. “Now get, the hell, out of my bar!”
The patrons, who didn’t want to be disturbed, were concentrating on a high-stakes game of Battleship by the dartboards. What began as a child’s game had evolved into a contest where men with steely nerves matched wits to win thousand-dollar stakes.
“F-5.” Jimmy Mussolini kept his eyes on his opponent, Dwayne, while sipping his bourbon. He owed his surname not to the Italian dictator but to his father Dale Mussolini, the Panna Cotta King of Muncie, Indiana.
“Hit,” Dwayne said. “D-4.”
“Miss.” Jimmy inserted a red peg into square F-5 in the vertical grid representing Dwayne’s fleet. He was down to a damaged cruiser and destroyer. If he didn’t finish off Dwayne’s battleship soon, all would be lost. “F-6.”
“Hit,” Dwayne said. “I-7.”
“Hit. You sank my destroyer.” Jimmy mopped his brow and inserted a red peg into his destroyer on the horizontal grid. The next move could decide the match. Would it be F-4 or F-7? “F-4.”
“Hit.” This was it. Everything depended on Jimmy’s next move. He glanced at his backer, Pauly. “F-3.”
Spectators held their breath.
“Hit,” Dwayne said. “You sank my battleship.”
“Thank you, gentlemen.” Jimmy raked the cash off the table and went to the bar for another bourbon, the good stuff this time.
A punch to the kidney doubled Jimmy over before he could unlock his Volvo.
“What the hell, man?” From the look on Dwayne’s face, Jimmy could tell he was not happy.
One of Dwayne’s friends broke a pool cue over Jimmy’s skull.
“Give me my money back.” Dwayne flattened Jimmy’s nose for emphasis. “Billy saw you getting signals from the guy with the mirrored sunglasses.”
After Jimmy handed back the cash, Dwayne’s friends did a tap dance on his ribs with their steel-toed boots. Then they practiced the waltz, rumba, samba, foxtrot, and cha-cha. When it came time for the tango, they couldn’t decide between ballroom or Argentine so they left Jimmy unconscious on the asphalt.
A cerebral hemorrhage and ruptured spleen would send most people to the hospital for emergency surgery but a Hasbro hustler had to be tough so Jimmy treated his injuries with a shot of Maker’s Mark.
“What happened to you?” Pauly set down a copy of Diving to the Wreck on the nightstand.
“Little disagreement with our friend, Dwayne.” Jimmy sat on a twin bed.
“Damn it, Jimmy! How many times do I have to tell you to leave with the money instead of sticking around to gloat? Now, we’re down three thousand bucks. I can’t continue to stake you if you keep up with this bullshit.”
“I’m sorry, Pauly. I’ll do better next time.”
“There won’t be a next time.”
“Pauly, I know it’s rough but I was born to play Battleship, born to be a champion. I swear I’ll make it up to you.”
“I’ll give you one more chance,” Pauly said. “We have an opportunity to score big. Ever hear of Dakota Slim?”
“You mean the Psychic of Sioux City?”
“That’s right,” Pauly said. “So called because he can sense his opponents’ ships as if clairvoyant but don’t confuse him with Claire Voyant, the semi-finalist from New Orleans. Anyway, Dakota’s having an exhibition match in his home town of Bismarck, North Dakota. Rusty Eddie dropped out and I propose you take his place.”
“The buy in is ten thousand dollars and both contestants have to play while tripping on acid,” Pauly said. “None of your usual bullshit’s going to work so you know what you have to do.”
“No! No way!”
“What did I tell you about Bayesian statistics? Get out of my sight.” Meriwether Burgess swept the boards off the table and his students’ eyes went wide in shock.
Burgess was a short man with a knit cap and cheap cigar between his teeth. For over thirty years, his academy had transformed inner-city kids into the finest Battleship players in the nation by using probability and statistics to model the best moves. He noticed a figure in the doorway.
“Hey, Burg.” Jimmy stepped into the school he hadn’t set foot in for three years.
“What do you want?”
“I was wondering if I could train with you.”
“You’re a bum, Jimmy! If you’d have studied the Student’s t distribution, you could have been somebody.”
“Damn it, Burg. Battleship’s not about probability density functions. It’s about playing with heart. I’ve got a chance to take down Dakota Slim. Will you help me?”
“You mean, the Psychic of Sioux City?” Burgess took off his cap and ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “That’s the chance of a lifetime.”
“How do I get ready for this?” Jimmy asked.
“What we need,” Burgess said, “is a training montage.”
This would be a good time for the reader to hear a John Cougar Mellencamp song like “Jack and Diane,” not that the song has anything to do with battleships or board games but it appeared in the opening paragraph and bringing it back is an example of the literary technique called foreshadowing. Of course, typing the lyrics would violate the copyright so you won’t read them here. Just imagine the Cougar’s raspy voice while Jimmy swims in the Delaware River with a cable, attached to the Battleship New Jersey, clamped between his jaws. Maybe he does sit ups beneath the battleship’s big, sixteen-inch guns while Burgess punches him in the gut and makes him call out game squares. You could even imagine Jimmy firing artillery blindfolded. No matter what you pictured, end with the image of Jimmy atop the New Jersey’s mast with both fists held aloft in triumph. Of course, Jimmy’s training involved Markov chains and Poisson distributions but pages of calculations aren’t as cinematic as physical exertion.
“Burg, Dakota Slim accepted our challenge but there’s a catch.” Jimmy handed Burgess the letter. “He wants to play Advanced Salvo Rules.”
“Advanced Salvo Rules!” Burgess stubbed out his cigar in a bowl of blueberries. “This changes everything. Your only chance is another training montage.”
The board warped like a trampoline at a hippo’s birthday party and the letters marking the grid appeared to be written in Chinese. Jimmy couldn’t read Chinese. A cockroach the size of a Rottweiler handed him a walkie talkie and asked, “Want me to nuke a frozen burrito?” Haunted by the thought of radiation-induced mutations growing ants to the size of Littoral Combat Ships, Jimmy shook his head. He was tripping balls!
“Uh.” Jimmy pushed the button to talk and said, “A-3, F-7, I-9, and F-7,” to send a salvo Dakota Slim’s way. These were Advanced Salvo Rules where the players fired as many rounds per turn as their surviving ships.
Jimmy heard a crescendo of chaos as pianos crashed into Dakota Slim’s grid. A dying cow bellowed, all according to the organizers’ marketing plan. To add suspense, they had staked out cattle in a cornfield to represent the players’ fleets. With each salvo, a trebuchet lobbed upright pianos into the appropriate squares. The organizers didn’t worry about animal cruelty as the cattle would end up as hamburger, either way. They would have gladly substituted PETA protesters as targets but there were none in North Dakota.
Jimmy knocked Diving to the Wreck off the table and yelled, “Adrienne!” He reached out to put pins in his board but couldn’t pick them up because his hands had changed into egg beaters.
The bellows of dying cows announced Dakota Slim’s return volley. It was an allegro of annihilation, bolero of bloodshed, diminuendo of death, glissando of gore, minuet of murder. sonata of slaying, a treble clef of terror. Louis Armstrong sang “Hello Dolly” through the walkie talkie and told Jimmy he’d lost both his battleship and cruiser.
“Uh, E-5 and H-5.” Jimmy’s salvo resulted in a chord of splintering wood and breaking strings but no dead cows.
Dakota Slim’s next volley turned Jimmy’s destroyer into chuck roast. It was time to play the way Jimmy always wanted, with heart. What did all those statisticians know about being down to your last submarine in some seedy bar with the price of a cheap motel and bottle of rye whiskey on the table, anyway?
Quite a lot! Gerolamo Cardano, founder of probability theory, was a gambler. The last things Jimmy heard before a piano crashed through his roof were the dying screams of the cattle on his aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Oh yeah, the organizers had placed the contestants’ shacks in the cornfield to ensure the players had skin in the game.
The housewife poured vodka into her smoothie and felt the purple elixir soothe her jangled nerves after the first sip. She knew she should be watching the twins but the day at the park was her first moment alone in weeks. She carried her beverage past the picnic tables on her way to a motel on Sixth Street while hoping the board games would keep her little monsters occupied during her rendezvous with Clyde Vivaldi.
Jimmy Mussolini squinted through his good eye at his opponent. He didn’t let the child’s thick glasses fool him. Sure, the towheaded boy couldn’t be older than ten but that junior-high, grudge match had taught him never to underestimate an adversary. Both players were down to one ship each, the thrill that Jimmy lived for.
“H-4,” Jimmy said.
“You sank my battleship!”
“Ha!” Jimmy scraped the nickels, quarters, and bottlecaps into his pockets and hauled himself onto his crutches. “See you around, sucker!”
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com