I'm standing in a spot of light surrounding a microphone at the front of a darkened room. The mic stinks of stale cigarette smoke and worse, and I'm struggling to breathe. A mass of anonymous humanity ripples out there in the crummy meeting room at the Holiday Inn. "Hullo," I say. "My name is Newt and I play bridge."
A crowd that should be sympathetic remains quiet. Someone coughs in the back of the room, a throaty, gurgling cough that signals unspeakable evil. Bridge players.
"I play three or four times a week now." That's a lie - it's really more like five or six. "On a good day, I whup ass on a roomful of little old ladies. On a bad day, they whup mine. It's a foul life."
I explain that I play in a bridge club that meets in a nondescript office park. Next door is a methadone clinic; the local AA office is across the way. The whole complex teems with low-lifes. A uniformed cop parks outside, afraid to get out of his cruiser.
I try to make the room understand how I got hooked again after 35 years on the wagon, a good 35 years, with no bad habits other than an occasional beer bender and a cigar now and again. My shame is absolute.
Years ago, bridge was not so bad. You bid one spade if you had four spades in your hand and some aces and face cards, and your partner would bid three spades if he had a few spades and some more face cards. With great cards, you'd just up and bid two spades from the get-go. It was a simpler time, an innocent time. No longer, my friends.
Now, if your partner bids one spade and you have any four spades in your hand, even lousy ones, you bid three clubs - THREE CLUBS, for God's sake - or, if your opponents bid something, like two hearts, you go ahead and bid three hearts to show that you have some spades. Or if you start out with a great handful of spades and aces, you jump right up and start with two clubs. It's an insane wasteland.
And the little old ladies, they'll finesse the crap out of you for a miserable extra thirty points. They'll strip your hand and end-play your lights out for a top board if you let them. My life these days consists of trying to figure out where the other 39 cards are.
Oh, I once had a productive life helping corporate clients make more money. Now I scrabble night and day for a couple more masterpoints. You get 300 points and they make you a Life Master. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, right? A guy here in town has 55,000 masterpoints. I have 26. People wonder why I feel inferior! 26. Damn.
This week I am going to The Nationals in Orlando. With my 26 points. I'll beat little old ladies over the head trying to become a Sectional Master. That's like a Life Master in diapers. Between games, I'll scheme with my partner - a woman of otherwise good reputation - about how we can ruin someone's day in the next round.
"In conclusion," I croak into the microphone, "I have only myself to blame for my life of dissipation and overbidding. I am an addict. I play bridge."
The crowd sighs as one. Someone in the back shouts out, "Hey, you need a partner for Thursday?"