Concentration: A Story

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.

An entire deck of cards is shuffled and dealt face down in rows. The exact pattern, Sandy knows, isn’t important. Sandy knows about cards and she knows about quiet. She thinks more about quiet—and why she can’t keep it—than she thinks about cards, but she makes sure each card has a definite place. The group settles—Jack and Bean were teasing Frank about his attempt to grow a beard last winter; they’ve stopped and Frank sits still and inspects his hands with surprise, as if they were newly purchased. And Jess has found a place to pause in a long tale about this guy at work and the guy he hired and why she’s pretty sure that the first guy hired the other guy to get in his pants and this first guy always does this but it never works because he hires artsy-looking guys and won’t believe Jess when she tells him they’re straight. When the talk stops as suddenly as a spigot that’s been shut they all notice how the air hums with its absence; Sandy tries to tune into and relax within this gauzy frequency.

She can’t. She doesn’t trust the quiet and so she says, “I didn’t know the boy I asked to the prom was, uh, having sex with my, you know, he was, well he is, my step-brother,” but the last few words dissolve in the self-conscious laughter that always devours her awkward attempts to add to any conversation. The ensuing chorus of whats and huhs lacks much interrogative energy; at this provoke such a thought? Once during a discussion of how people can never find their phones at home, she piped up: “I leave my phone in the bathroom because I’m always in there, not for what you think,” a gulping chortle overwhelming the kicker, “even when I don’t need to be.

Her giddiness softens what otherwise would be off-putting for some. Not Jess, though. That voice—the laugh, the way it smudges whatever silly thing that escapes Sandy’s jingle-jangle brain—gets to her, or really gets all over her. Sandy’s talk is an itchy sweater Jess can’t peel off. The confessional intimacy unnerves her. Implicates her; it’s as if Sandy was ventriloquizing an inner life Jess didn’t know she had. But she’s much more bothered by the inadvertency. How does craziness like that slip out? How could your guard be so low? What if Jess just blurted out something like the things Sandy says? Could there be a situation, the right or wrong person, that could cast a spell and loosen words she’d regret? It was frightening. Sandy was frightening.

As the pile of cards grows beneath Sandy’s clasped hands, the wrinkles on the back of her fingers absorb her. The deep creases at the knuckles; the other ones like bloodless paper cuts. She hasn’t said a word since mentioning her prom and permits her-self only a tight anti-smile as she collects another pair. Across the table Jess, too, holds her tongue, holds herself head to toe, and eyes her friend warily. The others—Bean and Jack—are busy elaborating on the kind and degree of Frank’s romantic failures.

The two of them hoot and make noise that would suggest a good time. The game continues until all the cards are removed or turned face up, whichever comes first. ♦

Missed earlier stories? Find them here, here, and here.

(Image credit: Photo courtesy Stuart Burns via Flickr.)

About Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio is the author of several poetry collections and a fiction collection, Games and Stunts. Mobilio is an assistant professor of literary studies at the New School, an editor at Hyperallergic Weekend, and contributing editor at Bookforum.