The latest in Albert Mobilio’s series of (very) short stories based on old-time games illustrates how the characteristics of play capture the essence of our lives.
The number of stars may be infinite; the number of beans to be used is fixed. There will be ten. They are dried and hard but their color and relation to symmetry can vary. They are lima, they are pinto; they are kidney; they are coffee and chili. They are any one of several dozen kinds of beans that might be easily acquired and deployed in this test of skill. There is nothing particular about any one choice, only that the bean exhibit a beanly essence; a beanness, so to speak. This farinaceous seed is to be pressed into non-edible service, as beans often are in bean bags, bean bag chairs, or as bingo beans, counting beans, or metaphorically, bean counters, bean balls, or the beans one might be full of or spill depending on metabolic or moral inclination. A literal bean counter provides each contestant with ten and, after confirming the number, assessing the shape and aerodynamic character of the bean, she turns her attention to an upright milk bottle placed four to five feet away.
The bean will be aimed and launched with the intention of entering the mouth of the bottle and thereby scoring a single point. Much whooping may attend the successful accomplishment of this task. The excitement is likely to build if a contestant continues to—over that distance of four to five feet—pitch beans into the container. It is possible though, that a player or two or three will attempt to distract the bean thrower, to disturb their concentration and calculation as they prepare their toss. The devilry flaunted by poor sports is a sad testament to the growing lack of respect for bean-based competitions. A few of the more typical tactics include: standing close to the bean thrower and shouting loudly about the decades-old government conspiracy to make Americans increasingly docile by the manipulation of daylight savings time; standing close after having doused oneself in lighter fluid and holding a lit match; kneeling behind the bottle begging the Lord of Hosts to visit locusts upon the home of the thrower; and stripping bare, painting the extremities blue, and gyrating to Joe Turner’s song “Flip, Flop and Fly” directly in the thrower’s line of sight.
While distracting, these methods are not the worst witnessed. There is a report of one competitor asking another if she has ever brought owls to Athens; another details an individual who quietly wept in his car in the parking lot outside the game emporium and thereby disconcerted arriving players; and even more shocking is an instance when a contestant advanced an anti-Copernican argument with the fervor of a Jehovah’s Witness who is under quota for converts and being threatened with transfer to a neighborhood where “Armed Response” signs are visible on many lawns. The thrower in that case sent all ten of their beans so wide of the mark that several passersby came under the impression that a burrito had burst in the vicinity. The bounds of propriety and fair play were irretrievably crossed and all the competitors in that match were inconsolable for days afterward. They spoke of anger-soaked dreams in which anthropomorphic planets took turns reciting Moody Blues lyrics.
Such behavior was not what Bean Bottle Throw, Bean Drop, Bean Shooting, Beanbag Three-Two-One, Quincunx Bean, or any of the multifarious family of bean-to-target endeavors was ever meant to incite. Rather, the sport was designed to reward skill and engender pleasure. These antics pervert that goal, diminish its players and fans, and ultimately denigrate the blameless bean itself. Observe the bean when thrown; its rotational progress to-ward its goal should inspire us. The bean may be small, may be merely a seed, but the bean moves through space with a purposeful yet insouciant grace. Know the bean, know its longing for the bottle, for a place within. ♦
(Image credit: Lewis Hine, Pitching Pennies, Providence, RI, 1912–13. Courtesy Library of Congress.)