Under the table and screaming
I was renting a room in my friend Gradi's house in Linwood, New Jersey, 10 blocks from my hometown, Somers Point. Gradi had been on a baseball scholarship to Farleigh Dickinson University. A knee injury and some drunken debauchery on campus brought him home.
He was delivering frozen foods in the morning and gambling through local sports bookies every night. He would yell and curse at the television and occasionally smash furniture when he lost. Drunk either way. I was rarely in the mood to cheer him up. I had my own demons to wrestle. They always washed up on the Jersey Shore.
Winter in South Jersey can be maddening for local college dropouts. I was broke and lonely for my Minnesota girlfriend. I was counting the hours til spring, when I'd join her in magical Duluth.
Boredom was depressing. Being depressed was boring. I suggested to Gradi we contrive some good-natured pranks. Pranks aren't productive. Pickles aren't purple.
One insipid afternoon, I shimmied underneath the living room coffee table and jibed, "If we had a tablecloth, I could hide and su'prise people." The next day, Gradi procured a black tablecloth that hung to the floor.
Gradi's house had become a men's club to friends living with parents or girlfriends. We devised a plan and waited for the phone to ring. Whom could we could prank?
Our hot-tempered Italian friends were immediately ruled out. We were hoping Carter would invite himself over. I still owed him for a shaving-cream incident. Shutzy was too emotional. Chappy, too unpredictable.
The first call was from Gradi's friend, Danny Thompson. Dan was a law student. Son of the town judge. He'd been the star of our high school basketball team and was still dating his high school sweetheart. Dan would pick up whiskey, cigars and magazines on his way over and leave them at the house when he left. Mostly, he would stop by to cheer up Gradi.
"Yeah, come on over."
Gradi was giddy, reminding me of the sparkle-eyed kid I met years before. We took turns offering high praise of Dan as a man of composure, integrity and understanding, among other dignified qualifications. We further justified our actions as ultimately good for the town. This could be a valuable learning experience for our likely future town judge.
Dan pulled up. I scurried under the coffee table. Gradi lounged on the big couch, leaving the short couch as the logical place to sit.
"Come in!" I heard the magazines hit the tabletop above me. Dan sat on the target couch.
"Gradi! How ya doin'? Ya aw'ight?"
"Yeah! Ya aw'ight? What's goin' on?"
"Nice table cloth. Where's Teague?"
"Chappy jus' picked him up. Funny thing, though. We got home and da friggin' back door was open and it looked like someone opened da friggin' basement window."
I was impressed. Gradi routinely turned buffoon when forced to lie. The plan was to mention the possibility someone had broken into the house. From under the table, it sounded convincing.
"Really?" said Dan. "Anything missing?"
"Nah! Prob'ly nuttin'." Gradi smoothly transitioned, "I'm putting together a, uh, wu-da-ya-call-it, photo book and stuff, since Teague is goin' back da friggin' Minnesota. Le'me take yer picture."
I could see the soles of Dan's shoes from under the black cloth.
"1 ... 2 ... " counted Gradi. "Three" was my signal.
I burst from beneath the table with a primordial scream and aggressively grab Dan's ankles. Dan jumps with a shriek. Click goes the camera.
Triumph! Gradi and I are hysterical in our glory. Dan quietly paces the room. Ten minutes later, Gradi and I can't stop giggling.
"I'm not mad," Dan exasperates, still pacing. "And, I think it's funny." The slightest hint of his smile shines through. "I just can't believe you guys would do this to me!"
Admirable. Dan compartmentalized his thoughts and emotions and revealed his verdict.
"Le'me light dis for you, Danny Boy," says Gradi, offering Dan his own cigar. A few years later, Dan is sworn in as the youngest judge in Linwood's long history.