Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
Consigliere Tom Starbuck nods approvingly.
"Beautiful," he says. "Absolutely beautiful."
Proscenio ("The Whale") Vitelli gently runs his right hand along the table's edge. "Mahogany," he says. "Hand-polished. The whole thing is hand-made. The slate is imported from Tuscany."
"The table," Starbuck says, "the room -- everything! It's perfect."
"Thank you, Tom," Vitelli replies, uncharacteristically demure. He is wearing a hand-tailored silk robe over his hand-tailored swimming trunks. With a man his size, and in possession of his wallet, hand-tailoring is the only possibility.
"This was all doctor's orders again?" Starbuck continues.
"Definitely. I've got to exercise. I can't avoid it, at least not if I want to make it to my fiftieth birthday. Or that's what he tells me, anyhow."
Starbuck turns to the rack behind him, ponders his choices for a moment, and selects one of the ten pool cues. Don Vitelli has already made his choice.
"It's hard to see this as that demanding an exercise, Proscenio," Starbuck says as he leans over the table, carefully pointing the stick at the ivory cue ball.
"I've got to stand up. I've got to walk around the table. I've got to keep a keen eye and a cool hand. That, my friend, is exercise."
Starbuck sends the cue ball into the number fourteen, which glides gently into the corner pocket.
"I didn't know you were a good player, Tom."
"There was a table in my building when I went to law school," the consigliere responds. "I used to play to relax."
"Let's play, then. Rack 'em up."
"What do you want to play? Straight pool?"
"Eight ball. I like eight ball. It's a game with strategy."
"You sound like a player yourself."
"You remember the old Gaitano club down on Elizabeth Street? I used to go there with the old man when I was a kid and play for hours on end. I'm not bad at this. I should have bought a table for this place years ago."
"Let's play then."
"Let's make it interesting." The Whale reaches into his pocket and brings out a wad of bills in a money clip. He loosens the money and lays a fresh hundred-dollar bill on the edge of the table.
The lawyer covers the bet with two crisp fifties. "You're on."
"Break," Vitelli says, organizing the balls inside the wooden rack.
Starbuck cocks an eyebrow, but accepts the offer. He carefully lines up the cue ball a few inches from dead center, and before the Don has the rack three inches up in the air, he slams the cue into the pile. Balls fly in every direction except the directions of the pockets. "Damn!" he exclaims.
The Whale studies the table, quickly satisfying himself to go for the stripes, the high-numbered balls. He sinks one, then another, then another. His run ends, and he steps back from the table, a smug grin on his face.
Starbuck circles the table once, twice. "There aren't any shots," he says. "Nothing but striped balls as far as the eye can see."
Vitelli shrugs. Starbuck plays a safety.
But not safe enough. It is the Don's turn again, and in short order he sinks his remaining four balls. "Eight ball in the side," he says. With a flourish, he banks his final shot into the side pocket.
"You weren't kidding about the Gaitano club," Starbuck says as Vitelli sweeps up the two hundred dollars. "Double or nothing," he says before his boss can pocket the money.
"Double or nothing," Vitelli agrees, putting the bills back on the table.
Once more Starbuck reaches into his pocket, this time extracting four fifties.
"Can you afford to play with me that much longer, Tom? How much cash do you have with you?"
"Enough. You break this time." He racks up the balls.
"Are you sure of that?"
The Don nods. Unlike Starbuck, he takes his time with his first shot, which, when it comes, is firm, but not over-aggressive. He sinks the fifteen ball, and once again gets stripes.
The victory is not so easy this time. The Don sinks three, Starbuck sinks three, the Don sinks three more, Starbuck sinks two, then the Don downs the ten, followed by a neat cross-table bank into a corner pocket.
"Again," Starbuck says, this time ponying up four hundred dollars to match the pot.
"I can do this all night," the Don says. "Break."
This time the Don's victory is a little easier, seven to two.
"I can spot you two balls and still win," he says as the eight slides into the side pocket after having been softly kissed by the cue ball.
"There is no way you can spot me two balls and win," Starbuck says angrily.
The Don waves his hand over the eight hundred dollars. "Let it ride?"
"You'll give me two balls?" Starbuck asks. His voice is tight, the strain coming through clearly.
"Two balls," the Don agrees.
"For ten thousand dollars?" Starbuck asks.
The Don laughs. "Ten gees? Come on, Tom, what am I, paying you too much, you can afford to hand over ten gees?"
"Ten gees," Starbuck says.
The Don shakes his head. "Ten gees," he agrees.
"Your break," Starbuck says as he racks up the balls.
"You're out of your mind, Tom." He lines up the cue ball.
Starbuck doesn't respond.
The Don hits the pile, and the balls break. This time he sinks the four. "Solids," he says as he looks for his second shot.
Starbuck is still silent.
"There's not a lot here," the Don mutters. He steps back from the table and tightens his robe. "I gotta play a safety," he says finally.
"Whatever," Starbuck says.
The Don lines up his shot, carefully leaving the ball in the far corner away from the pack. "Not a lot to work with there, either," he says, stepping back.
"There's enough." Starbuck takes a piece of chalk and gently rubs it on the tip of his cue stick. "More than enough."
He steps back, considers, then lines up his first shot, a three-ball combination. The number ten sails neatly into the corner pocket.
He sinks six more striped balls, and then the eight, in rapid succession, barely taking a breath between them.
"Ten thousand dollars," he says, looking at the Whale.
Vitelli's mouth is open. "You hustled me, you son of a bitch."
"You would have done the same to me if you could have."
"Where did you learn to play like that?"
"I told you. Law school."
"What did you do? Play every waking minute?"
Starbuck smiles. "As a matter of fact, I did." He chalks his tip again. "Double or nothing?" he asks.
Vitelli racks up the balls. "Straight pool," he says. "For fun."
"Fun." He shakes his head. "You son of a bitch."
"I am a lawyer," Starbuck points out.
"That's the only reason I can forgive you," Vitelli says. "You can't help yourself."
Starbuck smiles. Their game begins.
"I still don't remember promising to go to that tournament with you," Braun Saxon says, removing the Chinese take-out food from the boxes and neatly arranging it, suitably enough, on the China.
"Well you did," Cartier says, popping the cork of a bottle of Australian Chardonnay. "It's fruity," she says, pouring it into the glasses, "but it goes well with Edward's cooking."
"The chef at Dynasty. He and I are pretty close. He knows what I like."
"Aah." Braun pauses. "How do you know so much about wines?" he asks.
Her face rolls into a moue. "Braun..."
"Forget I asked," he says. "No doubt you've been drinking since birth. Tres francais, ma cherie."
"Tres francais," she agrees.
They bring the food into the dining room. The table is large enough to seat twelve, surrounded by a broad serving table on either side. There are candles down the length of it; Cartier lights the closest two before turning off the lights.
"Very nice," Braun says.
"Much nicer than the kitchen," Cartier agrees. "When Daddy's home we always eat in here, even if it's only the three of us."
"With the servants to do the work," Braun adds.
"Of course," Cartier says, evading the irony, if she even perceives it.
For a few minutes they eat, their chopsticks clicking against their plates. Hacked duck, braised beef in tea leaves, home-made noodles -- "There's enough here for an army," Braun says.
"Mrs. Bridges will eat it for lunch. Maybe it will give her some menu ideas."
"She's going to feed us tomorrow night?"
"Yep. The full tilt."
"I can't wait."
"And then Saturday we go to the Blessed Moly."
"I never did."
"Well, you have to come. It's too late to get out of it now."
"I don't understand what the big deal is, to tell you the truth."
"The big deal is, it's my last tournament. Ever. And we need a judge. It won't kill you; in fact, you might actually enjoy it."
"I don't know anything about judging Debate."
"It's not Debate, it's Speech."
"Debate, Speech, it's all the same thing."
"It is not all the same thing, Braun. They are completely different. Debaters are all little lawyer wannabes with pocket protectors and briefcases filled with philosophy novels."
"Philosophy novels? What are philosophy novels?"
"All right, not novels. Whatever philosophy is. Nonfiction, I guess. Nonfiction philosophy books."
"Debaters read philosophy books?"
"All the time. The way normal people read non-philosophy books."
"I've never read a philosophy book in my life, and I'm not going to start now."
"That's my point. You don't have to. There's no philosophy in Speech. Speechies are different. Some of them are quite chic. They're theatrical. Very theatrical. You like the theater, right?"
"Then you'll like Speech, and you'll like Speechies."
"So what exactly do they do?" He waves his chopsticks in the air. "This duck is unbelievable, by the way."
"It's one of Edward's own recipes. So's the beef."
"Okay, so first there's Dramatic Interpretation. That's what I do."
"And what is that?"
"You have a piece, probably from a play but maybe from a movie, and you do it under ten minutes. You can do one character or multiple characters. Very dramatic."
"And how am I supposed to judge it?"
"You just pick the one you like the best."
"I pick the piece I like the best? Or the person?"
"The person. But you've got to judge them on the basis of the quality of their interpretation."
"How do I do that?"
"You pick the best actor."
He nods. "Sounds reasonable."
She holds out her wine glass and he refills it. "Humorous Interpretation is the same thing, only it's comedy. Sometimes they mix and match the two, but they'll be separate at the Moly."
"I wouldn't mind judging comedy," Braun says.
"If you do, you've got to laugh," she tells him.
"Why wouldn't I laugh?"
"Some judges don't. The kids are doing a humorous piece and the judge sits there like the mummy's uncle. It's positively scary. Usually it's inexperienced judges who don't know any better, who think they're not supposed to show any emotion."
"I'm an inexperienced judge," he says.
"You'll do fine," she tells him, aware that perhaps unbeknownst to him, Braun has gone from not judging to being inexperienced. He has committed himself without even knowing it."
"What else is there?"
"Well, there's Duo Interp, which can be either dramatic or humorous, with two people. Each one can do only one character, at least at the Moly."
"Same thing? Judge them on their acting?"
"That's about it."
"It sounds pretty easy."
"It is. There are other activities. Oral Interp is prose and poetry. One round it's one, the next round it's the other. Here you really judge their interpretation of the literature."
He grimaces. "That sounds tough."
"It really isn't. If they do a good job, you'll enjoy it and you'll understand what they're doing. If they're bad, you'll be bored. That's pretty much how you'll measure them."
"What exactly does the judge do? I mean, how do I measure them?"
"All you have to do is rank them. Usually there's six or seven in a round. All you have to do is rate them from one to six or seven."
"I keep telling you, it is easy. You'll always know who your first two are and your bottom one. It's the middle that's the toughest."
"That's it, then?"
She shakes her head. "There's Original Oratory. That's when someone writes their own speech."
"You don't judge that just on interpretation, then."
"No. There you have to evaluate what they're saying."
"What do they say? I mean, what are the pieces about?"
"Issues. Things going on in the world. Usually the big issue is how hard it is to be a teenager."
"It doesn't get any easier when you get older," he remarks. "So that's it?"
"Nope. There's also Declamation. That's only the younger kids. They perform somebody else's speech, either a famous speech or someone else's O.O."
"You mean, one kid writes a speech on how bad it is to be a teenager, and some other kid gives the same speech."
"Not at the same time. Usually it's the next year."
"It's nice of them to give it a cooling-off period."
"And usually it's a prize-winner."
"Well there's that, anyhow. So that's it?"
She shakes her head again. "The last one is Extemp."
"You're sure it's the last one?"
"Good. So what is that all about?"
"Extemp is when people are given a current-events topic and have half an hour to write a seven-minute speech."
"Whoa! That sounds a lot different from these other things."
"It is different. It's almost like Debate, except you don't have to debate anyone."
"That's one way of putting it, I guess. And you rate them from one to six too?"
"Yep. As simple as that."
"As simple as that." He finishes his second glass of wine. "I don't remember ever promising to judge for you."
She rises from her seat, pushes him back slightly from the table and sits on his lap, putting her arms around his neck.
"You're sure you don't remember?"
Her breath is warm as she speaks into his ear.
"I don't know."
There is the tiniest flick of her tongue.
"Maybe I sort of remember..."
"Sort of. I guess." He sighs.
He is going to be judging, whether he wants to or not.
Will the Don ever beat his consigliere at pool?
Is there some good reason for including the Vitelli adventures in this speech and debate story?
Will Braun make a good Speech judge?
Will Edward share his recipes with Mrs. Bridges?
Will Bill be moving to New York with Hillary?
Ordering out makes more sense than our next episode: "Olive Oyligarchy, or, Goy in a Gubble."
Go to the next episode due June 2, 1999.