Prager_HeadshotAfter Mechanicsburg, convincing me to risk venturing into another terra incognita proved to be a Herculean, if not Sisyphean, task for Jo Ann. “They are not ‘alien environments’ as you call them, Gordon. They’re perfectly normal, English-speaking American cities and burgs less than two hours away. Hagerstown. Lancaster. Wilmington.”

Captain,” I replied, “you can’t mix matter and antimatter cold. We’d go up in the biggest explosion since –”

“What on earth are you talking about? Honestly! You’d think I was asking you to parachute behind enemy lines.”

“An apt metaphor. It has been common knowledge for decades that matter and antimatter are volatile if not mixed properly. I have it on excellent authority from Scotty – Lieutenant Commander Scott – the foremost engineering officer within the entire fleet of the United Federation of Planets. Season One. Episode Four. Star Trek Stardate 1702.4.”

“Oh good grief,” she shrugged, priming her photon torpedoes for another go at my defensive shields. “We’re talking about driving to Wilmington, not breaching the fortress on Rigel-Seven.”

Oh-Em-Gee – that’s incredible! Did you just say Rigel-Seven?”

“I did, indeed, Montgomery. Rigel Seven – where the first skipper of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Christopher Pike, led a landing party into a deadly ambush by indigenous warriors.”

My head was spinning. She was a Trekkie, perhaps more conversant than I with the plotting and scripting of the original series. She was well up on the prequel to Kirk’s captaincy and cognizant of Scotty’s true given name, Montgomery. I was outmatched and, perforce, compelled to alter course. “So, then, it’s fair to assume that we’d be staying at one of those places with ‘bridge rate’ rooms featuring miniature petrified bars of soap, all of three hangers a dinky half-closet, single-ply toilet paper, and ten bucks a day for internet service?” It was a thin riposte, hastily cobbled together, but the best ack-ack flak I could muster during the process of getting pinned to the mat.

“It’s a Doubletree, thank you very much – where it so happens I’m Hilton Honors Gold. There’s free WiFi, and I every confidence we will find the amenities to your impeccable liking. Plus, it’s five easy miles to the Bridge Studio. Happy?”

Happy. A word steeped in the banality of overuse. I looked it up once: its roots go back to Middle English and Old Norse, where they connoted good fortune, as opposed to joy. Leveraging that meaning of yore, I countered her challenging throwaway query with one of my own: “You’re asking me … do I feel lucky? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself.”

Jo Ann supplicated toward the heavens. “Please, please, please – do not let him start quoting Dirty Harry again. I beg of you!”

She had detected my Clint Eastwood impersonation coming from a mile away, which is entirely on me. I’ve channeled him so often that she can cite the name of the character and the title of the movie. She knows The Outlaw Josey Wales like the back of her hand. Ditto In the Line of Fire. And Firefox. And Heartbreak Ridge. And too, too many others.

What to do? I pivoted to thrust-and-parry. “Route Ninety-Five can be an absolute Grizzly bear. Construction going on all the time. Insanely fast drivers. Filthy rest stops.”

“We’ll skip the coffee and tea that morning, wait until after rush hour, and drive straight through. Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.”

How did she ever get to be that good? “Okay, then, what about the dog?”

“What dog? We don’t have a dog.”

“Maybe we should get one for companionship. We’re terribly isolated down here, and half the time our alarm system is on the blink.”

“You turned it off over a year ago, if memory serves, because you kept permutating the code numbers and waking the dead.”

She had me there. Think fast! “Okay, then what about the Doubletree?”

“What about the Doubletree?”

“It’s on Route 202, I take it … the main drag, as they say.”

“Yes. Yes, it is. Are you superstitious about that number? Is that where you’re headed?”

Aha! “Not in the least. Not that number, anyway. No – I’m thinking about the Doubletree in King of Prussia. That’s on Route 202 as well, and it’s a killer.”

“You’re saying Dekalb Pike is a killer?”

“No – the main parking lot at the King of Prussia Doubletree … that’s the killer. It’s pitched up a hillside at what seems like a thirty-degree-angle. Maybe that’s okay when the hotel’s hosting a Merck conference or a collegiate sporting event – but for a regional duplicate bridge tournament? You’ve got septuagenarians, octogenarians, people with walkers, carts hauling oxygen bottles. After they park their cars, it’s like a downhill chariot race to doom as soon as gravity takes over.”

Jo Ann couldn’t help but laugh at the imagery. Although I had exaggerated it vastly for effect, the underlying premise was accurately depicted. “Same road, same chain, I grant you,” she concurred, “but different topography altogether. Wilmington’s lot is relatively flat.”

I was prepared to concede, but reluctant to wave the white flag. “So where does that leave us? Stalemate? A draw? Flip of a coin? Tarot? Tea leaves? Examine the entrails of a barn owl in a graveyard at midnight?”

Jo Ann looked past me, through the fogs of deflection and obfuscation, plucked a plum, and returned with a smile. “El Camino.”

“What’s El Camino?”

“Tex-Mex, Scotty. A true-blue Tex-Mex cantina. Spicy chicken quesadillas. Ancho short ribs. Luscious shrimp fajitas. Tacos al pastor. Red sauce. Green sauce. Guacamole. Crispy tortilla chips. Pico-de-gallo. Tomatillo. Oversized margaritas. Five minutes from the hotel. Seven if you obey the speed limit.”

“When do we leave?”

(To Be Continued)

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