The Dark Lord of Jenga is a real-life dude, and not nearly as scary as his name implies. He is virtually unknown outside the water-locked confines of Ocean Bay Park, New York − a quaint, quiet hamlet resting a brief ferry ride off the Long Island coast. Having visited this island, I can attest his realness is verifiably real. But I swore to his face I would never utter a word about him, lest I receive lifetime banishment from playing Find the Hidden Chihuahua in the Pizza Kitchen, a simple game whose directions are probably understood quite easily in light of its title.
But let’s be hypothetical and say you and a small group of friends − no, they are associates at this point, but through your pending tribulations they will become friends − let us say that four of you are traversing by foot the streets of a sleepy, sun-bleached ocean community named Ocean Bay Point and that this entirely unrelated though coincidentally similar-sounding village is just a medium length’s ferry ride’s off the coast of…Wong Island. And let us say that Wong Island is a part of the state of…North Dakota.
It has been raining fiercely all afternoon. At this particular hour, however, the sky has granted respite from its warm, constant, sheet-like spew. The dirt roads are puddle-ridden and difficult to navigate. Two flip-flop-wearing associates have discovered that, to some dismay, mud specks have been flying up the backs of their respective legs, shorts, and skirt with each step. You remark that they could use individualized mud flaps. There is mention of Yosemite Sam and desire for juicy bacon cheeseburgers.
You trudge on. The sun has now set on this tiny town. You are drunk and hungry, on a mission for even basic sustenance. Nary a beachside snack shack operates on this desolate Thursday evening. You are ready to capitulate, head back to the rental cottage, eat what’s left of the French’s mustard in the fridge, and slumber.
As you stomp your way past a small restaurant called Park Pizza − wait, Point Pizza − a sudden illumination from within catches your eye, stopping you in your tracks. The whole group has noticed and halted accordingly. A woman waves, beckoning: come over, come here, we are indeed open. It is fate: you are going toward the waving woman, toward where there may be pizza.
But she disappears within as quickly as she came, and upon approach you are greeted by something entirely different: a looming, broad-shouldered man whom you immediately decide resembles an amalgam of different down-on-their-luck Robert De Niro characters throughout the years. At once he is bold and formidable, wily and deviant, and − like Travis Bickle!, you think − seems a little off. He stands in the half-opened door between you and delicious salvation. He stares.
“You’s guys hungry?” he asks.
“Yes,” the group answers, nearly in unison.
“Good deal on a pizza,” he offers, looking shiftily to his left, then his right. “Good deal on a pitcha.”
“But are you even open?” one of your colleagues asks as she suspiciously eyes the unlit storefront.
He stares with intense blankness that makes you uneasy. The group looks around at one another, silently contemplating, communicating with eyes and mouths and brows. It has already been decided: there is food in there, and it is worth the risk.
“Well?” you continue.
He makes like a doorman and, in mock politeness, swings wide the door and sweeps his arm welcomingly through its frame, toward the establishment’s interior.
“I am now.”
But there is hardly room to enter. The space is small and overstuffed with the patio furniture and signage that, assumedly, adorn the façade on sunny days. Cardboard beer boxes lay flattened on the floor, absorbing some intruding rainwater. The lights are off, save for two that illuminate a tarnished old pizza oven back behind the counter. It doesn’t look open.
“You sure?” one of you says. “It’s just us four. It won’t be much business.”
“Oh, suuuuure,” says the man. “Open, closed, whatever.”
He slowly, very deliberately locks the door behind him, eliminating any escape, and walks around the counter. He stops, sizing each of you up with sinister delight. Your face grimly contorts as you wonder: Why did he just lock that door?
“So, you’s want a pizza, huh?” he asks, almost angrily, staring without a trace of amusement or hospitality. “OK,” he continues. He points, then slaps his hand hard on the counter. “But first you gotta do something for me!”
Suddenly he’s moved right into what looks like a supply closet. Despite craning, you cannot see his whereabouts. Some shuffling is heard. Perhaps there will be blood soon? Where did that woman go?
“First,” he repeats for effect. “One of you’s has gotta play me at Jenga!” Emerging from the nook he carries the game box in one hand and two strange floppy cylindrical somethings in the other. Now smiling playfully, he hands you a foam hat shaped like a pizza, and your associate a chef’s hat colored like an Italian flag.
You agree to the Jenga. How can you not agree to the Jenga when two seconds ago you thought you were going to be murdered?
“I have to warn you,” he says, “They call me the Dark Lord of Jenga.”
Beer is poured, a pizza is placed in the oven, and what turns out to be a fairly epic Jenga match ensues. It becomes apparent quite quickly that, while your host is an adept and experienced stacker of wooden cubes, he is no Dark Lord of this practice. Despite his greatest efforts, which include the ethically questionable practice of cherry-picking top-row blocks, on the first try he is bested by your steady-handed associate, who it turns out to everyone’s surprise probably is some sort of Jenga royalty. He takes his loss in stride, though you can tell it doesn’t happen often and probably stings a little.
This imaginary night is far from over for you, your new friends, and the Dark Lord. There may still be delicious pizza to be had, a pitcher on the house, even a VIP goofy-hat photo shoot behind the counter. Perhaps after a few more Jenga contests and hoppy beverages, the Dark Lord will turn on a Steve Miller greatest-hits album and this will be perfectly appropriate. And then, hoisting high over his head a box of York Peppermint Patties, he’ll yell boisterously:
“An after-dinner mint to the first one of you’s finds my dog!”
The night’s stacking up nicely.