My friend, Ralphus

Stop the Presses column by Chris Graham

“I feel terrible,” I said, to no one in particular, except that Ralphus heard me.

No matter.

Because I did, you know, feel terrible.

I had the flu, or so I thought.

I mean, I probably did.

I felt bad, and all.

I had chills, and a fever …

Was exhausted …

And I was just saying, you know. I don’t feel good.

And then I remembered.

Ralphus one-ups.

“You don’t feel terrible,” he said, confidently, too confidently, if you ask me.

Like he knew, or something.

“I don’t?” I asked him.

Thinking that, well …

Maybe he was onto something.

“What do you have? A headache?” Ralphus said, condescendingly.

Setting me up, I realized.

But I played along.

I was too tired not to.

“A headache. A fever,” I said, going down the list. “You know. Cold chills. An upset stomach. That’s about it. I don’t know. I just feel terrible.”

“You don’t feel terrible,” Ralphus said, emphasizing the word terrible.

Again, like he knew.

What a (censored).

“Let me tell you what it’s like to feel terrible.”

“What?”

What?

“You take five kids, two wives, three dogs, two cats …” Ralphus stopped, dramatically … again for emphasis.

And then he laughed, heartily, and I knew.

I had been one-upped.

Again.

I don’t know why I deal with Ralphus.

I mean, arrggh. You know?

No matter what you tell him, he can tell you something better.

Have the flu? He had malaria. No, make that typhoid fever. Or the Ebola virus.

A headache? He had a brain tumor.

A minor fender-bender? He was in an airplane crash.

With no survivors.

Don’t ask.

In short, if you did it, he did it better, or worse, or whatever. Or he knows somebody who did. Or he knows somebody whose third cousin’s best friend …

“Why can’t I just have the flu?” I asked, exasperated, which is a big word for peed off.

“I mean, you know? I’m sick. So why can’t I just be sick?”

“You’re sick now?” he asked me.

“Hmmm. So you’re saying you’re sick now … You’re not sick.”

“Yes, I am,” I said, now getting peeved, another smart word for, well, (censored).

“I’m sick. I have the flu. Why can’t I have the flu? Why can’t I just have the daggone flu and enjoy it?”

“Huh?” Ralphus asked me.

He looked confused.

“You do this all the time,” I said. “Remember when I went bowling a couple of weeks ago?”

“You didn’t go bowling.”

“Yes, I did,” I said. “And I told you how I bowled a 191 …”

“I bowled a 215 one time. One ninety-one? That’s not bowling. Two-fifteen? That’s …”

“That’s nice. That’s great,” I said. “I wasn’t bragging. OK, maybe I was bragging. But I did. I bowled a 191. I was happy. So what? Big deal. But then you …”

“Let’s go bowling. I’ll show you bowling,” Ralphus said.

“That’s not my point,” I said. “You can’t leave well enough alone. Like when we were talking about …”

“You scared?” Ralphus asked me. “You afraid to go bowling? I bowled a 215.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Who cares about bowling? A bunch of out-of-shape people …”

“You’ve never seen out-of-shape people,” he said, steering the conversation again. “Not until you’ve seen Phil.”

“Phil?”

“Yeah, you know Phil,” he said, reeling me in.

I then realized: I was falling for the Ralphus hook.

“Phil’s FA-A-A-T,” Ralphus said, laughing, almost choking as he said it and laughed at the same time.

“He’s as big as a house. Couldn’t walk up the steps unless he …”

I wasn’t even listening.

Because mainly, I was mad at myself.

I’d already been one-upped, and now I’d been hooked.

Ralphus, like many attention-seekers, likes to control conversations, and the way he does it is by throwing a word or two out, enough to get you to ask, OK … what?And then, when he hooks you, and you’re out there, flapping on the line, desperately, he reels you in.

I’ve learned to pretty much ignore him.

Doesn’t work.

But still.

“And then he split his pants!” he said, finishing his latest ditty, laughing so hard that he was crying.

And then he noticed I wasn’t laughing so hard that I was crying.

Or at all.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m sick,” I said.

“You’re not sick.”

“I am so,” I said. “Why can’t I be sick?”

“I was sick,” he said, out of nowhere.

“That summer in Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Rico?”

“If I never tell you anything else, remember this,” he said. “Don’t ever drink Puerto Rican rum.”

“Um. OK,” I said.

“Made me sicker than a dog.”

“OK. Note to self.”

There was a pause.”

“Puerto Rican women,” he said, cryptically.

Waiting for me to fall for it.

I resisted.

It came anyway.

“Prettiest women in the world,” he said, finishing whatever it was that he was trying to say.

“Puerto Rican women. Filipino women. I don’t know. It’s close. Maybe Guam.”

“Guam?”

“You ever been there?”

“No,” I said. “How did we get to talking about Guam? I thought we were talking about …”

“Rum,” he said. “Puerto Rican rum. Made me sicker than a dog.”

“No. We were talking about … Hmmm. What were we talking about?”

I was at a loss.

“Know why I drank all that rum?” Ralphus asked me.

Hooking and reeling and one-upping all at once.

“You’re going to tell me anyway,” I said.

Defeated.

I was hanging there, waiting for the answer.

Why had Ralphus drank up a gallon of Puerto Rican rum?

Why? Why?

For the love of God. Why?

“Puerto Rican women,” he said. “Have you been listening at all?”

“No. I’m sick,” I said, remembering what it was that started all this.

The talk about foreign women and foreign rum and bowling and whatever else it was Ralphus wanted to tell me and I didn’t want to hear.

It was my aches and pains.

My flu.

“You’ve got me confused with somebody who cares, brother,” Ralphus said, one-upping me for the last time.

 

(Published 01-31-03)



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