When you don't have Jazz Cable and you want to see the basketball game on big-screen TV, your options are limited.

So the other night I made a few calls, tracked down a place with "friendly shadows" - as Kris Kristofferson says - and took up roost there near the big TV and a crock of bubbling chili.The game was a bust. But the talk, it turns out, was pretty darn good.

I ended up sitting by this couple from Nevada. He had the bluest eyes and grayest teeth I've ever seen. I'd soon learn he also had a memory like a defective colander.

"That chili you're eating worth having?" he asked me. "I was supposed to get steak tonight, but she ain't talking." He jerked a thumb toward his wife. I hadn't noticed her till then. I'll just say calling a lady "40 miles of bad road" can get you into trouble. But referring to 40 miles of bad road as a lovely lady never will. And the "lovely lady" was staring straight ahead as if her husband spoke only Swahili.

I told him the chili wasn't bad. Then we began sharing some driver's license information. You know, where are you from? What do you do? Turns out he worked with show horses in Las Vegas. So I asked if he slipped out after hours and did some "gamboling" himself.

"You bet we did," he said. "Why do you think we're here?"

Did he ever have a system for winning at the tables?

"I did. And I didn't share it with many people either," he said.

"Why don't you ask him if he had a system for losing at the tables," his wife said. "He passed that system out all over town."

We both looked over at her. It must have been 24 hours since she'd spoken to the guy, because he looked pleased as Hawaiian Punch. You'd have thought she'd said he had a body like Karl Malone and a mind like B. Stanley Pons.

"The problem is I don't have a head for numbers," he said to her. "My memory isn't what it was."

"What it was?" she said with a phony laugh. "You have the worst memory God created. You can't even remember people's birthdays."

Slowly, a look of terror crept onto his face. "Don't give me that," he said. "Your birthday's in June."

"Correction," she said. "Your EX-wife's birthday's in June. Mine's today."

"That's it, isn't it?" he said. "That's why you ain't talking." Without missing a beat he began singing out loud at 90 per.

"Happybirthdaytoyou, happy-birthdaytoyou. . . ."

"Too late," she said.

Then he looked over at me and gave a gap-tooth smile. He was actually relieved. But not because his wife was talking. I got the feeling there was something else, like he'd probably done some pretty awful things and was glad to learn she hadn't found out. He was only charged with a misdemeanor - forgetting a birthday.

"Happybirthdaytoyou, happy-birthdaytoyou," he sang again.

"Shut up," she said.

After a few minutes they started chatting together in low tones. A little later they stood up and headed for the door. He had his arm slung around her waist. At the door, he turned around and gave a wave.

I waved back and thought of a story I once heard about Robert Frost. A young poet came to visit the old master. As the night got deeper, the conversation got confessional. The kid was horrified.

"Nobody knows this," he told Frost, "but I fake it in almost half of my poems."

Frost supposedly nodded his big head and put a hand on the boy's knee. "Don't worry, son." he said. "Nobody's found out. Nobody's ever found out."