One plays only if and when one wishes to. In this sense, play is a free activity. It is also uncertain activity. Doubt must remain until the end, and hinges upon the denouement.
—Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games
Stand with the others in the fenced-in yard. Shoes drag through gravel and dust rises with each slow step. Each of us has an uninflated balloon. At a signal, given from someone outside the fence, from someone who used to be in here with us, we all begin to blow up our balloons. Faces puff with exertion as the limp fingerlings grow into balls and crescents. A few close their eyes; others study the dilating shapes, the red, blue, and yellow forms, newly entering the domain of things. But all share this sense of fresh arrival, an awareness that, as it pushes away from our lips, room must be made in the world for this balloon. It is our breath and effort, a portion of our life force contoured and made colorful.
Yet it isn’t ours at all; it’s a balloon, a thing among things, not you or me or anything alive. The contestants blow and lungs empty. We pinch the mouth-like opening and snatch another draught of air. We continue until the first balloon bursts, its explosion causing a stutter among the others’ determined exhalations. The blower of the first balloon that bursts is the winner and that is acknowledged by a celebratory detonation of our own balloons, most often accomplished by squeezing and tearing the thin rubber. The yard erupts with random pops. We are red-faced, depleted. Outside the fence, another signal is given and we move into single file and begin walking. Dust billows around our feet and covers the pretty shreds of color that have fallen there.
They run, they jump, they play. They are contestants. They contest. To win is sweet and noble; to lose, less noble, a good deal less sweet. This game is simple but still a test—of speed, dexterity, the ability to concentrate on the task at hand. There’s Jack. A winner even when he loses; he loves to play. This is the lie he tells himself. Jess would never lie to herself because she’s pleased with everything she does, says, and thinks. She’s pleased as punch. Is discretion the better part of valor? Discretion and resentment, according to Frank. He would rather lose and find fault with the winner than to win and have others find fault with him. Sandy’s the same but not. That is to say she’s inclined to win, to reap glory, but her faint wishes barely animate a patch of fast-twitch muscle. Sandy wants to come out on top but couldn’t care less about anyone coming out below. On the other hand, Bean is a winner. Born to beat the world or whatever defeated portion of it he can dance victorious upon. That this dance is gleeful is the lie he tells himself, although he would barely be able to discern this lie from the teetering pick-up-sticks pile of deceptions that passes for his personality.
How the race is run: two players dash twenty yards across the shiny ballroom floor each to a table on which a spool of thread and a needle have been placed. This distance is short but they must be prepared to brake and redirect their effort toward a less strenuous, more delicate task. Energetic legwork gives way to a different power, one that steadies hands: they must snap off a length of thread, thread the needle, and replace it on the table before running back to the starting line. Jack gets to the table first and bloodies himself with the needle. Fussing over the mess—blood quite undoes Jack’s equilibrium—allows Bean just enough time to accomplish the job. Bean’s fine with a needle in far worse carnage—hiking in the Sierras, he had occasion to stitch a small gash on his calf. When Sandy and Frank go head to head, both prove deft with needle and thread. Someone in Sandy’s college dorm noticed her mending a button and nearly every guy in the building brought her something that year. Frank covered a jacket he wore in high school with a dozen skateboard patches—and then pulled every one out three weeks and a broken arm later. Skills are coupled to flaws. One player impresses at the starting line, another shines in the final heat. They will run, jump, and even sew. They will play at playing well past when playing isn’t playing anymore.
Grab a Pin
One is a chaser; all others are runners. Bean is a chaser. You bet. All the time—straight out of bed, big strides, big breathing. He swallows yards of daylight and slips through the dark like a pickpocket’s hand in some mark’s pocket. No red light is red enough to keep him on a curb; he moves into, no, he moves at traffic. “Come on,” he says to the laggards who wait for the hard-charging bus to pass or stop. “You’ve got to judge it right. No one wants to hit you. Come on.” The chaser is within a circle, and standing within the circle are ten or more Indian clubs, placed at random. This is where Bean needs to be: confined with the possibility of escape. Enclosure excites him—within a cramped kitchen, an elevator, an embrace, he tenses against the nearness of the world, its warm buzzing skin. It’s a kick but only in as much as it promises better. So he’s out of there, off in pursuit of sweeter, stronger heat.
Bean may be crazy. Or at least a kind of crazy. The kind that makes you want to be wherever you’re not. That’s what Jess thinks. And maybe, she thinks, she’s crazy, too. Because she also suffers the nearness, how everything surrounds you. Out under a broad swipe of night sky the dark bears down. Her skies are always falling. The apprehension doesn’t excite her, though. Instead, she has to fight being tired. At home she’ll pull the covers up over her head and try to push through to thinner air, into a place with elbow room where maybe stars aren’t right around you and you need to squint to see better because they’re so damn far away. It doesn’t work. There’s too much of her and too much everything else. After a few squirmy minutes she has to get up and move around. Run water in the sink, raise and lower the shades. She opens a kitchen drawer and puts tablespoons with tablespoons, tea with tea. She rolls her thumb in the hollow of the one that doesn’t match the others.
Jess would like to be a runner if that means squeezing out from the always in-between. That’s where she finds herself with Bean—sort of with him, sort of not. She quietly dotes on the long shesh in the word dash, drawing it out over a long exhalation. The sound has sheer in it, shine and shoot, too. Buoyant, gravity-less words.
They will try to steal the clubs without being tagged by the chaser. If they succeed, Bean remains caught inside the circle. The same circle he’s been in since the game started ten minutes ago yet it’s felt like an hour. With an Indian club in sight Jess aims for it, crouching, running, the awkward gait cramping her legs as she dangles one arm low enough to graze the tips of the grass. The blades are wet and the club is slippery. The neck would be best to grab, but instead she has hold of the wide base, or almost does. A bent, ungainly thing, she further complicates the locomotion by looking up and there is Bean. Teeth bared like headlights, he shifts into her path, his panting betraying more effort than he would like to show. As they close in on one another, he reaches out, the anticipated tag already palpable; Jess shrinks back, her torso twisting away from him. Down to her molecules, she wills herself smaller. The two of them could be dancing, or falling. Or they could be about to get as near to something as you can without quite touching.
Feet together, hands at his side, Jack stands as if summoned to this spot. In one hand he holds the handle of a broom, its business end resting on the floor. He volunteered to go first because he’s handy with brooms. Growing up, sweeping was his household chore—to broom out the kitchen, his father’s workroom, the back porch, the driveway. He did so meticulously and with fervor, taking delight in moving debris and dust into small piles and then working those accumulations into greater sums, all the while maintaining a military front as he crossed the floor, advancing from the flanks, bringing up the center. He knows a good broom, a tight brush made of crisp straw bristles (not plastic) with the slightest give where the sweeper meets the handle.
With his arm straight, he must lift the brush end of the broom gradually from the floor until the broom and his arm are at shoulder height. This stunt gives a strong man a chance to demonstrate his ability. Jack is a strong man. A strong-ish man at least. A strong-ish man who keeps a clean, well-swept apartment, maintains his fingernails at the cuticle, and who will, when he has the opportunity, steal underwear from the drawers of women he knows, wear them a few times, and then find a way to return the items to a laundry basket in their home. He has this routine down cold, in fact. Starting when he lived in a group house in college and over the years, Jack honed his surreptitious technique. The secrecy itself became a precious possession, a talisman that conferred the ability to understand other secret keepers. Whenever a revelation appeared either in the news or among his acquaintances of a shameful or illicit act, he felt kinship.
There have been times when the theft was exciting and times when the wearing offered the more piercing thrill. Standing in a near-stranger’s bedroom easing a hamper or dresser drawer open in half-light or going out on a date aware every minute of the thin elastic’s tenuous encirclement—how could he say which provided the more galvanic kick. But surely the topper had to be getting caught by and confessing to Jess.
The difficulty can be decreased, of course, by using a lighter broom or one with a shorter handle. That’s not Jack’s style with brooms; he is, after all, sort of strong. The night Jess caught him in her bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub, his arm plunged deep into a basket of clothes, he would have crawled down the drain if he could have. Or at least at first. So vibrant was the sense of shame—its heat flooded his face and chest—he felt emboldened by its voltage. He stood up and held out a clutch of nylon and strappy things and said, “Do you think you could help me find something nice?” Never before had he been this calm with Jess or any woman. Their friends could be heard down the hall and the bathroom pipes groaned—the upstairs neighbor must have flushed—and a guttural sound rose through the tile walls and crested abruptly. It was just the answer Jess had been searching for and she began to laugh. A nervous, what-the-fuck-is-this laugh, but Jack knew one thing—that Jess would listen if he wanted to explain. He wasn’t sure right then if he wanted to, but he would be in time.
Small cheats are permitted: for instance, the broom can be lifted more easily if grasped at a certain distance below the end of the handle. Jack doesn’t take this opportunity. Instead, he begins to lift at the very end of the broom. It is difficult. There’s no doubt about that. He envisions himself as a construction crane, his body comprised of gears and steel cable. Eyes closed, he keeps the image vivid. The strain radiates from his wrist into his shoulder and upper back. But when, as Jack has done, you reconstitute muscle and bone as machine, you don’t worry about nursing a torn tendon in your forearm and offering a feeble lie about how you incurred this injury. That’s not how a strong or strong-ish man thinks.
The broom and Jack’s arm quiver as they rise; as the broom approaches waist height the movement quickens. He has to resist his body’s biomechanical imperative—the urge to crouch. If he lowered into a squat, he could thrust upward with chest and legs pitching in. Another unacceptable cheat. Jack is shaking all over as the straw—he can see flecks of grit in the gray balls of dust bunched in its base—reaches his eyes. All he has to do is straighten his arm—to hold out the broom in one level line from shoulder to the tip of the broom. A few inches more… Jack is sure he can do this. He sucks in and holds a fistful of air and his face tenses as he is revealed for what he is: a man who knows what to do with a broom.
Some kind of circular or other closed running course is needed; a course can be improvised by marking it with lawn chairs, ornamental deer, gnomes, discarded tires, or other obstacles. The runners are stationed at equal distances around the course, each with his own starting line. There is, owing perhaps to the general absence of a sound eschatological vision on the part of the players, no finish line. Frank aims himself, legs pumping, toward something he cannot see, but that fact in no way diminishes his determination. Failure has long hounded him, worked its way into the smallest corners of his life. He’ll drop a dish, cut himself zipping his jacket, climax too soon, sign his name where he should have printed it—barely noticeable misses and mistakes, yet quite noticeable to him. He keeps track, he knows the cumulative score. Idling in line for coffee or in the shower, he closes his eyes to see a long list of checkmarks in black ink scrolling by. Demerits they were called in high school. Merit minus. Always less than.
The whistle blows and all begin running at once, and each runner tries to overtake and tag the runner in front of him, while also avoiding being tagged from behind. Frank finds himself, then, amidst. Catching up yet almost caught. Pivoting to his left at one of the deer, to his right to skip past a lawn chair, its aluminum frame fluorescent in the sunlight, his breath comes in bursts. Frank lunges at Jess who has stumbled just in front of him. Of course, he stumbles too, tripping over her legs, his outstretched arm skidding into the turf. Just behind him another runner brushes his shoulder. “Tagged!”
The game continues, round and round the course, until only one player remains. One of the deer looks directly at Frank, or at least that’s how Frank sees it. He bears down and squarely meets the reproving gaze of the durable polyresin replica. Buoyant voices chatter away around him. Jess is saying something to Bean about a book she started reading but couldn’t finish because there were too many semi-colons. The sun exhales and in doing so swells larger on his brow alone.
A line is marked on the floor about two feet from the wall. The setting is spare, with shadows as solid as a wall and the wall as dark as a doorway through which you might fall. The player leans forward, places his head against the wall, and folds his arms behind his back. The player is Bean and he sets his pate against the wall with some carelessness about its rough texture. Thus arched, arms appearing bound as if he were in a straightjacket, his figure suggests more than a stunt in the making—he looks like a madman bent in supplication. He leans forward determined, the floor and his legs and feet occupying his entire view: the elemental forces—gravity rooting us to the ground and energy propelling us upright. In addition, there is a pair of much scuffed Oxfords worn laceless without socks like loafers. The shoes evoke Bean’s past—beer blasts on the quad, summers in Maine, hasty departures from partners just fallen asleep. The lack of laces speaks to expediency; these shoes are kept on by sheer speed of movement.
To perform the stunt Bean must use his head as a pivot to rotate his body 360 degrees, without moving his head from the wall or unfolding his arms. This action requires balance, flexibility, and some indifference to pain—all qualities he possesses. But before putting them into play he must choose whether to turn left or right. Not a leftie, Bean knows that turning that way will allow him to employ the strong right side of his body for the outset of the pivot, but coming around, when his back is arched against the wall, he will have to resort to the weaker. It is the mid-point of the pivot that most taxes the back and legs; that is when the need for the most tensile strength shifts from right to left or vice versa. The question then is should he begin with strength to establish balance and momentum or might reserves of these prove more crucial when he is self-pinioned and literally bent over backwards. Unlike, say, the ability to tolerate pain, decision-making isn’t eased by mere exercise of will. For instance, in high school Bean ran in the 1500 meters with a sprained ankle, all the while imagining his leg was a tuning fork being struck with each downward stride to make a higher and higher pitched sound. Focusing on that thought, on controlling the volume so that it rose in precise increments enabled him to race. He finished second.
He turns right. Past experience tells him that some spur at the mid-point of anything—running track, getting through college, copulation—is more important than a good start. The middle is where losers lose. Initially, it’s his head that bears the brunt of the motion; his scalp just above his forehead burns and general pressure—consequent upon the weight of much of his upper body—provides felt insight into the shape and construction of his skull. A vague image recalled from an anatomy text reveals the brainpan as joined from several parts rather than one solid battering ram of a bone. This gives him pause but he proceeds. Not being able to steady himself because the restriction of his arms isn’t only a balance problem, it’s one of self-control. As he approaches the 180 degree point, getting there by moving his heels in tinier and tinier arcs, his posture becomes precarious: the urge to throw both arms to save himself from dropping like the proverbial sack of potatoes comes in escalating spikes.
By the time Bean is facing away from the wall, staring up at the ceiling, he is used to the pain around his head. As he pivots the contact point moves too; his occipital—a word that is also emerging from the fog of a long-ago class—is presently engaged. Instead of the supplicant, he now cuts the figure of a celebrant, a dancer in an ancient ritual of sky worship arched in relish and awe of the heavens, his arms set to clap together in ecstatic embrace. But the ceiling, streaked with paint roller lines that only someone set this intently in its direction would ever see, is not the sky. Growing dizzy, Bean closes his eyes, more to keep his balance than to escape the claustrophobic view. He shifts: this is the crossover to his strong leg, more able shoulder. His knee flexes to accommodate the change and he’s around the corner. Fucking A.
The rest is gravy. Turning back into the wall enlists gravity, and the body’s natural inclination to lean forward rather than back. When he’s back where he started—beneath him the floor, his shoes—he notices the need to breathe; he’d hardly been breathing and for the first time he notices the boiler’s oily smell. There’s no one to cheer or laugh with about this. Bean is alone in the basement of his apartment building. The narrow, sidewalk-level windows have grown darker. He reaches for the string below a nearby bulb. Maybe, he thinks, one more time. Now that he knows the trick of it.
Albert Mobilio is the author of several books of poetry including Bendable Siege, The Geographics, Me with Animal Towering, and Touch Wood. He teaches at the New Schoolâs Eugene Lang College and is an editor at Hyperallergic Weekend and Bookforum.