The Games We Play

by Rob Gregory Browne

When I was a kid, our next door neighbors were our best friends.  The Ruckers had five kids, so I never went without someone to hang around with.  My buddy Cricket and I did everything together, and when school started and Cricket got too old to be hanging around with a pipsqueak like me, I started hanging out with his younger brothers Jack and David.

Our parents were best friends as well.  I remember many a night when Bob and Bonnie Rucker came over to play cards, or to take late night swims in our pool.  It wasn’t unusual to come home from school and find Bonnie and my mom having coffee at the dining table, gossiping about god knows what.

There was a lot of drinking and listening to music.  My parents used to get albums by the 101 Strings Orchestra and they’d put it on as background music as they played canasta with the Ruckers and laughed until their stomachs hurt.

After hearing one of my dad’s albums, Bob decided to go out and get a 101 Strings Orchestra record himself, and one night came over with The Soul of Spain

Unfortunately, when they played the thing, they all agreed that it was terrible.  Probably the worst album they’d ever heard.  Bob tried to give it to my parents, but they told him thanks but no thanks.

But Bob conveniently forgot the album that night and refused to take it back when my dad later tried to give it to him.

My dad being my dad, he decided Bob was going to get it back whether he wanted it or not.  So one afternoon, he sneaked over to Bob and Bonnie’s house, stuck the album in their stack of records, then went about his business.

Days passed, with no word from Bob.  Then one night, as my mom and dad were climbing into bed, they found the The Soul of Spain peeking out from under my dad’s pillow.

I have no idea how long this went on.  Weeks?  Months?  Years?  All I know is that album mysteriously appeared in various places around both houses, went back and forth more times than anyone remembers, was even sent through the mail at one point (addressed to “Jeff” Rucker) and became a running gag in a friendship that lasted nine years.

The last time anyone remembers seeing The Soul of Spain was when we took the pool cover off for the summer and found it laying at the bottom of the pool.

I don’t know why this memory sticks with me.  Probably because my parents and the Ruckers seemed to get so much pleasure out of playing this little game.

But, frankly, I’d forgotten all about it until about five years ago, when I found myself caught up in my own little running gag.

It started at Thrillerfest, Arizona.  The first and best Thrillerfest, I think many of us will agree.

I was standing outside a room as a bottleneck had formed at the doorway, people heading in for the next panel discussion.  There was a tall, attractive blonde trapped just inside the door, unable to get past the throng.  She looked pleadingly at me and said, “I’ll pay you a quarter if you’ll get these people to stop.”

So I threw my hands up and shouted “stop” at the wave of people approaching, allowing the blonde to slip through the doorway to freedom.

A couple hours later, I ran into her in another hallway. 

“Where’s my quarter?” I asked.

She looked at me.  “Seriously?”

“Hey, you promised payment,” I said.  So she gave me a frown, dug through her purse and handed me a quarter.

The next day I found her again—found out her name was Twist Phelan—and gave her her quarter back.  “I was just kidding,” I told her. 

Twist insisted I keep it, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  And I’ll be damned if I remember much of what happened with that quarter after that until we fast forward a bit, to either Bouchercon or LCC (I can’t remember which), when Twist not only gave me the quarter again, but this time she had painted it with acrylic paint.

The next conference (or two or three) I returned the quarter, but I added a small car, gluing the quarter into the driver’s seat.

When I got it back from her (at the next conference), there were now two quarters, plus a few plastic cows riding in the back seat.

Obviously, things had escalated, Twist and I trying to top each other.  But when she handed me the car with the cows, I was stumped.  How am I going to top this? I wondered.

Fortunately, my wife came up with a solution.  And because I was so busy writing, she was good enough to put the thing together for me as LCC 2010 approached. 

When I went down to L.A. for the conference, however, I realized that I had forgotten the “thing” (what do we call it at this point?) and had to drive all the way back home to get it.  (click on photo to enlarge)

Needless to say, Twist was a bit blown away by my wife’s efforts.  But not one to shrink from a challenge, she flagged me down at Bouchercon a couple weeks ago and presented me with her addition to the “thing” and, of course, she once again managed to take things a step farther.

Now we had two quarters, two cars, three cows, one of them dead and covered in blood, a crime scene, plus a tsunami full of sea creatures.

I can only imagine what it’ll look like in another five years.  But, trust me, I already have a new addition in mind—one aided and abetted by Mr. Brett Battles—and I think Twist is in for a nice surprise.

All of this, of course, brings back those memories from my childhood and that damn Soul of Spain album.

So the question of the day, I guess, is—have you ever or are you currently involved in a similar type of gag?  If so, tell us about it.  And, if not, how about sharing a memory of fun times from your childhood?

Rob out.

29 thoughts on “The Games We Play

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not a running gag, but I remember going back each summer to North Dakota to visit grandparents, but we'd also spend some time with my parents' friends, the Meiers.Apparently, back in the day, my parents and they and another couple were quite the partiers. My dad and Benny Meier were flyboys and it was the 60s, say no more. I remember in the Meiers' garage they had an old bottled pop machine but it was filled with iced cold bottles of beer and you didn't have to put money in it. Oh yes, we'd grab and run and didn't quite know what the fuss was about but the beer tasted better with tomato juice in it.

  2. Catherine

    This was gag had a fairly short run. Nothing as epic as your parents.

    Years ago when I first moved out of home, at the ridiculous age of 17 I lived with my best friend from high school. We'd been friends for years. We lasted as roommates for about 6 weeks. Within that 6 weeks however we had a couple of friends that would turn up at dinner time. Night after night. Our main reason for being at that time was to be able to 'fool' the bouncers at the local disco so we dance and drink underage. Oh and buy clothes. We invested minimal money on food. I only knew how to make Tuna Mornay. So we'd have that a couple of times a week and eat sandwiches. Having two guys turn up and try to stretch the food when we knew their mothers' were happy to feed them was growing tired, quickly. They didn't take polite hints, and they seemed to think we were joking when we flat out told them to stop turning up at dinner time. So we figured maybe we could use humour to get them to take us seriously. Remember we were 17/18. It made sense at the time.

    We figured that one of the few things they cared about deeply were their cars. We figured we could work with that. So we went to the local bait shop, and bought several smallish mullet fish. (7 inches)

    My room mate looked like a teenage Aussie version of Dolly Parton so we used her as decoy while I snuck around and used fishing wire to attach the mullet in a variety poses in and outside of the car. I hung one off the rear vision mirror. I posed one with a music tape in its mouth. I strapped a couple to the roof racks. I put one loosely (not harmfully) in the muffler.

    We thought it hilarious that neither of them discovered the mullets till the driver went to adjust the rear vision mirror. We did not let them drive off with the fish. After I told them where every mullet was, we said to them if they didn't take us seriously about not not turning up uninvited at dinner time we'd ninja mullet their cars again and let the sun do the work. Not surprisingly they finally took the hint.

    They did pull their own mullet revenge hit later though by bringing around what they said was a peace offering smoke…but rigging a mullet in the toilet bowl. Fish eyes when you thought you were feeling pretty mellow are very freaky.

    We called it even at that point.

  3. Alafair Burke

    That is so cute. Knowing Twist, I can imagine the two of you creating this game over time.

    I had friends in law school who hid Peeps beneath my pillow one spring night when they came over for dinner, so that became a tradition for a while. They're back in Oregon so I don't get to see them as much as I'd like, but this post will ensure I'm prepared the next time I see them.

  4. Debbie

    Q. "So the question of the day, I guess, is—have you ever or are you currently involved in a similar type of gag?"
    A. Just chating with you guys! <grin>

  5. Cornelia Read

    Rob, this is so great. I wish I had a story like this, but alas… my friend Melissa's parents had a thirty-year running gag with who could find the worst Christmas present with another couple. I found out about it when I asked her mother why she had a taxidermied snake in a basket in her bedroom.

  6. Twist

    O Rob, I had a bad feeling when I read this line: “Then one night, as my mom and dad were climbing into bed, they found the The Soul of Spain peeking out from under my dad's pillow.”
    It got worse after I read this one: “But, frankly, I'd forgotten all about it until about five years ago, when I found myself caught up in my own little running gag.” We’d been outed!
    I had no idea you were genetically wired to play this game. Even so, you have to enlist Battles’s help? Bring it on!
    [Note to self: take extra suitcase to next conference.]

  7. pari noskin taichert

    Did your parents' riff with a fruit cake for several years with a friend — under beds, behind desks, in couch cushions (when it had turned into a brick). But we stopped when I moved back to NM.

  8. Robert Gregory Browne

    A pop machine with beer in it. I like that. Too bad I don't like pop OR beer. But I still like the idea… 🙂

    Catherine, there's something fishy about your story. (Sorry, I had to say it.)

    LOL, Debbie. So true.

    Alafair—Peeps? Are those those marshmallowy candies that look like chicks? I'm clueless. If so, at least you found food under your pillow and not a lousy album.

    Pari, I can't stand fruitcake in the first place, so I don't even want to think what that thing must've looked like.

    Cornelia, I think that's a great tradition. I just give lousy gifts, period. Ask my wife.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    I have this irrational worry over the Ruckers, now. Why only 9 years of friendship? Why not 10? What happened to them? Where's Cricket now? This is going to bother me all damned day.

    I have several running gags with friends, some for 15 years or more. One of them with a friend on Murderati.

    [Dusty, I am *still* stalking you, babe.]

  10. Debbie

    Rob, now with Cornelia's help, you'll know what to get your wife (wouldn't want to disappoint her would you?)
    Pari, no offence, but don't fruit cakes start off as door stops, kinda brickish? Might I suggest Jamaican rum cake instead? The fruit is soaked for up to a year in advance in every conceivable alcohol (and not our government over-regulated waterdown substitute either).) I was mortified, when working in an infant room, a coworker brought me a rum cake and I had to be polite and try some. Brought most of it home to enjoy…not because I didn't like it, but because my head spun and crying babies took on that Jamaican, 'No worries.' Ordered a cake from her for my wedding and none was left over!

  11. Robert Gregory Browne

    Toni, I have now idea where the Ruckers are now. We moved away when I was nine years old—a truly heartbreaking moment in my life. I saw Jack Rucker when I was in my teens when my sister and I visited the old house. They were still living next door.

    I have no idea what happened to Cricket, who's real name was Robert. The last I ever heard from the Ruckers was when my dad died. They sent flowers.

  12. Lorena

    I don't, but a co-worker of mine has a running gag in her family that involves a traveling squirrel (not a real one, it's porcelain or resin or some such) rather like the roaming gnome. It travels between family members at holiday time (Thanksgiving at one house, usually appearing mysteriously at a different house at Christmas, etc) and vacations…it's even been discovered aboard cruise ships, and during luggage searches at airports. And no one ever says a word…

  13. Dudley Forster

    Hmm.. No running gags. Do have friends where we try to out pun each other. In law school all the 2 & 3Ls had assigned study carrels in the library. We’d pull gags with them all the time during finals week. . Put them in the elevator, wrap it up in newspaper and put a bow on it, etc." Memory of fun times from your childhood", not so much. Mostly getting books from the library and hiding in my room reading.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Rob, good to know they aren't buried in someone's back yard somewhere after a certain family member snapped at seeing that damned album cover in one too many intimate places.

    [I can't help it, I'm writing right now and absolutely *everything* is a motive to kill.]

  15. Dudley Forster

    Toni – I suppose now is not a good time to bring up the quality of the Saints play on Sunday?

    Rob – At the rate of growth it won't be many more cons before it's going to need its own wheels.

  16. Mo

    Hubby and I have done this sort of back and forth play with assorted friends over the years. Always wicked fun. My favorite though was between my Mom and my husband. They both would bring me small, silly loot from any trip they took. Once my husband complained to Mom that she never brought him anything. So after her next trip she gave him a small rock the the town name written on it. He pretended to be offended and strated schemeing. Over the next decade it was passed back and forth as presents for bithdays and holidays each time with something new added to it. When there was no more room on the rock it was glued to a board and more silliness was added. Mom is now in a nursing home with Alzheimers and the "rock" sits in a place of honor in our house.

  17. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    For a few years I had a job giving learning disability tests at our local community college near Bakersfield, California. It was the most boring job in the world. The worst part, though, were the testing director's Christmas parties. Every year she invited – expected – everyone to go to her house for a tree decorating party. Several people, less timid than I (I know, I know) suggested she call it a holiday party, but she said it was her house and her tree, and that was that. She had a way of punishing those who didn't show up, so we went. It was always on a work day, and we got paid. That should have made it a "holiday party," but she was pretty nasty. Oh, the gag. Yes, the gag was to bring really heavy ornaments for her tree and feign surprise when they fell off the branches. At first it was just me who did that, but the tradition grew. Now she has retired, I hear, and the tradition lives on at the school in the form of a counseling-center sponsored, cultural-awareness/pre-winter vacation,/learning and teaching party event.

  18. Dudley Forster

    Toni – No! Don't do that – I take it back! I take it back.! Forgot how seriously y'all take your football. Sheesh.

  19. toni mcgee causey

    Dudley, this is the Deep South. There is God, there is Football, and there is Sex. Occasionally, there's the hat trick of watching football while having sex, saying, "Oh God, oh God," but most of the time, they're in that order.


  20. CarlC

    For several years now three families have taken turns hosting "Noah", a large stuffed bear who looks like something from Dr. Seuss. As we are all retired, travel is fairly frequent, and we often return home to find that Noah has taken up residence in our house. He often sports a costume that relates to the place to which you've traveled. After a trip to Egypt, our friends found Noah in their bed fully wrapped in mummy cloth. Not as creative as what you've got going on, Rob, but we do have fun with it.

  21. Laura

    This has really brightened up my morning! My workmate and I have a gag running when we get a bit 'over' work. Since we're both at desks we send each other pictures of "future husbands." It started benign enough – I told her she'd be perfect for Kramer from Seinfeld and she retaliated with a picture of Barney from the Simpsons for me. Apparently I took it too far when I photo-shopped her into a picture, so that it looked like she was taking a bath and drinking champagne with Walowitz from The Big Bang Theory! We still send each other pictures of "future husbands" but lately lolcats are becoming a more popular form of time wasting!

  22. KDJames

    Twist Phelan. What a cool name. And a great sense of humour. Going to have to check out her books.

    My kids do a version of this with embellishing not things, but stories about each other. Usually just for my "benefit" but also sometimes when their significant others or close friends are around.

    "Remember that time in high school when you [insert outrageous behaviour] and mom never found out?" "OMG, that was so funny. But what about that time you [even worse behaviour] [sometimes involving The Wonder Dog] and she never even suspected?"

    They seem to think that just because they're now both legally adults, there are no longer any consequences. Doesn't help that they're right. By the time they're done, they're both rolling on the floor laughing and I'm wondering why neither of them ended up in reform school. I don't even want to know how much of it is true.

    Just wait until they have kids…

  23. Dudley Forster

    Kd – The universal parenteral curse. And you know it works! My wife and I laugh on a weekly basis when one of the grandkids pulls a stunt her mother had at that age. Now we just have to wait until the other two have kids. Let the fun begin!

  24. KDJames

    I don't know, Dudley. I'd never tell my mom half the stuff I did when I was younger. She'd be horrified, even knowing what a normal well-adjusted responsible adult I've becom– Oh. Never mind.

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