Rioj-nah

“I really appreciate you letting me get in on the action, Clint.”

“Don’t mention it, Matt.”

“It’s one thing to win big, it’s another to do it against Jimmy, you know?”

“You’re not the first to do it,” I said, signaling for two more drinks. “You know that, right?”

“Right,” Mr. Damon replied. “But it’s The Geek, you know?”

“Yeah,” I replied, knocking the filter-end of a cigarette against the top of the bar. “I know.”

Eric had just been sent home, locking in close to another hundred grand; it didn’t even bother me that Matt Damon was drinking Cadillac margaritas at El Coyote while I was opting for the usual – and cheaper – scratch version. I was flush. Everything was going according to plan. And I couldn’t have been more miserable.

I’d returned to the scene of last season’s crime to gain some sense of closure. Keith was long gone, taking his tenuous grasp of the Spanish language that was no firmer nor weaker than Bryan’s with him. Six months is a long time behind a bar in La Brea, Fairfax, or any part of Los Angeles, really. Can’t say I blame the bartenders for moving on considering the patrons all stay the same; I’d be looking for the exit as well.

It was a problem I understood, though. Looking at my phone and checking the notices of cash flowing in and out courtesy of my gal Friday, I saw the same familiar names that came through every season. Sure, some were down more than usual, others were finally up, and there were a familiar few that could always be counted on to part with their money, but it felt hollow. There’s usually a level of entertainment to the game, but I can’t remember the last week I enjoyed myself this season.

A buddy of mine – far too risk-averse to wager money on this endeavor, though he can call a sure thing when he sees it – articulated it best. After watching Rachel with her parents, it became clear that she’s still more child than adult, telling her parents that they just don’t understand and that she has everything figured out. In a group of other children (often referred to on this show as “contestants”) she seems like an adult; it’s only in the presence of maturity that her defenses start to show cracks.

And boy, light wasn’t just shining through, it’s like there were thousand watt bulbs being lit up. Looking back it feels as if day one of Nick’s season featured the producers gathering all the eager young kids around and telling them that they were playing a game, the winner of which would walk away engaged. It’s the only possible reason I’ll accept for Rachel insisting that this show has to end with a man who’s known her for six weeks (max) proposing to her.

Playing by those rules, Peter’s been on the ropes since sometime after their first date. Granted, he seems to be the only contestant in the history of production who’s come on the show with a laissez-faire attitude about getting down on one knee when all was said and done, but America was forged by pioneers; why should the future of the reality-industrial complex be any different?

Because the viewers don’t want uncharted territory. Neither does Rachel. That point was hammered home as the final date between Peter and Rachel unfolded, with both parties being absolutely intractable over the subject of how much they loved each other and unwavering in their opinions over when is the right time for a proposal. What caused me to start ordering doubles was when Peter acquiesced, said he’d propose to her in the morning out of fear of losing her, and Rachel essentially said, “No, you need to propose to me when you’re ready,” which is exactly what Peter had been saying for several weeks.

This is, of course, an oversimplification of the situation, but that’s pretty much a necessity when trying to summarize the conversation of two extremely emotional people that traveled a circuitous route over what was (likely) several alcohol-fueled hours. In the opinion of this bookie, the whole thing seemed to catch even the production crew off-guard. For a team that knew Bryan was winning this thing, they couldn’t find an edit for the guy that didn’t make him like a rake who’d committed The Game (the pickup artist book, not a self-titled album by the rapper) to memory. Meanwhile, Peter – who Rachel seems to now genuinely dislike – was given a narrative arc teeming with romance, previews of what a great dad he’ll be, and wearing the hell out of just about any piece of clothing you hang on him. In Bryan’s best moments he speaks limited Spanish, has mommy issues, and doesn’t look like a guy who’d hit on a widow at a funeral (but you have to be looking from the right angle).

Even though the whole situation cemented a win for Bryan and a half-million of The Geek’s dollars in my coffers, it was a hollow victory. You have to love what you do (and separating fools – especially late-night hosts – from their money will always occupy a special place in my heart), but there was no joy in it. Getting to the end of this season felt a lot like shutting down a bar because you’d already been there most of the night and didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was a relief to see it end, even if Rachel did use her time on the couch to sling mud at Peter’s Next Bachelor campaign. In what was perhaps the most painful part of the evening, her takedown of Peter’s presence on the show – and Chris Harrison smugly sitting there and letting it happen – seems to indicate that we’ll be watching literally any other jabroni try to find love in the early months of 2018. I’m just not ready for it. Neither is my liver.

Matt Damon took off to celebrate in more cheerful company while I continued to drown my sorrows. It turned out to be his third-best decision of the past six months. Thirty minutes after the credits rolled a large duffel bag thumped down on the bar, sending my margarita into a sideways sprawl.

“Clinton,” the bag’s owner said.

“James,” I replied, nodding at the empty seat beside me.

“You’re buying,” he said, tapping the bag of cash.

“Nah,” I said with a lazy grin. “You are.”

I was pushing my luck; most men and probably all bookies would have been introduced to the flat end of microphone stand by that point, but The Geek actually laughed.

“Whatever’s expensive,” he said to the bartender as he sat down on the stool. “Hell, make it the whole bottle.”

“It’s all there?” I asked.

“All of it,” he replied, pouring himself what looked like a triple of Don Julio 1942 and then knocking it back in one go like the classless bastard he is.

“Surprised you didn’t send Chris as a bagman,” I said, reaching for the bottle. “He’s been noticeably absent from my circles, which I assumed meant he was traveling in yours.”

The Geek grabbed the bottle back and shook his head. “He got cagey midway through the season. Told me he had a good angle on you then disappeared.”

“He spooks easy.”

We sipped in silence for a minute before Kimmel nodded toward the bag and said, “You feel good about that?”

“Can’t say I do,” I replied with a sigh. “This season was a grind. It stopped being entertaining weeks ago. What’s the point of winning money if you aren’t having fun?”

“Trying losing it and having a shitty time.”

“I did. It was called Nick’s season.”

The Geek laughed again, a courtesy more than anything. He got up from the stool, the neck of the bottle still in his hand as he headed toward the door. He stopped halfway, turned around, and said: “I know you were behind Matt Damon cleaning my clock, Jackson.”

I said nothing. I moved nothing. The amount of liquor I put back may indicate otherwise, but I do value my life.

“I’m not mad,” The Geek said. “Heck, I’m impressed. But there’s one thing I can’t get over. Sure, you were behind him…but who was behind you?”

“Nobody, James,” I said, knocking back my drink in case it was the last one I ever had. “I’m just better at this than you. Accept it.”

We remained rooted in place, like gunfighters sizing each other up. Nobody in the bar took cover, but only because they didn’t know who they were dealing with. The Geek has a reputation and he was still carrying the bottle. I was armed with a fetal position I could get into if I wanted to make the damage a little less severe.

“We’ll see about that,” he said, cracking into untapped depths of smarm as he took one last pull off the bottle and set it down on an unoccupied table. “Same time next season?”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied. “Chris needs to find someone worth watching. Life’s too short for this shit.”

Jimmy shrugged a shrug that could’ve meant anything or nothing at all, then walked out the door.

I settled up my bill and hoisted the bag over my shoulder, my legs taking on that newborn colt quality that comes with a day’s worth of drinking and five hundred G’s cold hard cash in your hands. Out in the hot LA sun I smoked my cigarette as I waited for my Lyft driver and pulled out my cell phone, punching in a number I knew by heart. It was straight to voicemail, but it usually did after The Final Rose.

“Chris,” I said, exhaling a thin stream of smoke as my car pulled up. “It’s Clint. Word on the street is you’ve fallen out of some good graces. Give me a call if you want to turn it to your advantage.”

I paused, about to hang up, then added, “But only if you can find someone for next season who isn’t a total Muppet.”

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