The latest in Albert Mobilio’s series of fictional stories based on old-time games continues to illustrate how the characteristics of play are the essence of our inner lives.
Music—loud, insistent, and dissonant—makes remaining calm difficult. Clanging bells, penny whistles, and what is probably a toy piano ride treble-high over a honking bass saxophone playing “Yakety Sax” at half-speed. It’s a funeral march for a suicidal clown, or that’s what Sandy surmises. She observes Bean at the kitchen table fiddling with his laptop, jumping from one noisy video to another and judges the probable success of hitting him from across the hall with the mug she squeezes with increased annoyance. Just thump him in the back. Divert his attention from playing whatever he’s playing. As this only slightly violent thought discharges its modest current, she’s conscious of the weight and hardness of the mug. An empathy too finely tuned allows her to absorb the sensation of being hit with it and there, in the big armchair, she flinches.
“Bean, please,” Sandy says. To herself, though. Louder then, “Bean, please turn it down.”
“Yeah, turn that shit off,” Jack shouts as he descends the stairs. He holds his hands out, palms up. “Who took the towel out of the bathroom?” “We need it for Blind Man’s,” Bean declares as he brandishes the purloined hand towel and calls the group to form a circle.
People from Jack’s office are here; some college friends of Jess’s, too. No matter the increased numbers, he chooses Sandy—she knew he would as if in retribution for those angry thoughts—and soon her face from forehead to the tip of her nose is draped in a towel held in place with a binder clip that catches a hunk of her hair.
“Hey,” she says. The towel smells like sink.
She sits in the big chair while they dance around her—yes, dance; it’s not a pretty sight—until she gives a signal. She could clap, or shout “Stop.” When everyone halts Sandy will point to one of the players and that person will have to make a vocal sound that’s been determined in advance. They may have to imitate the sound of an animal named by the blind man, sing a song, speak in tongues, or impersonate Lucille Ball discovering a bat in her bedroom. Tonight, Sandy asked that those she selects cry like an eight-year-old who has been sent to their room for backtalk. She has one shot at identifying the player; if she succeeds, the two trade places. If she fails, she will continue drawing breath through what increasingly stinks of drainpipe.
The circular cavorting begins; the floor’s vibrations make their way through the chair to Sandy. It’s a pleasant sensation, like she’s in a drink being stirred. She can’t see anyone and they can’t quite see her but she is at the center of things. She tightens a bit and calls out “Stop,” and the vibration recedes. People laugh. Someone trips, it seems, into someone else and there’s more laughing. Sandy stands, slowly turns, and with a regal flourish points into the darkness. She’s pointing out there, out past the circle, to the living room. Out there.
It’s a friend of Jess’s, the woman with chipped fingernail polish who has been popping out all evening to smoke on the stoop. She begins with tiny moans, more sexual than sad, but then pushes them higher, allowing a raggedness to creep in around their edges. It’s throaty and wet and everyone is quiet. They build quickly. Soon there’s something undeniably genuine; the choking catch begins to spark some small alarm. She is wailing and heads turn away or down because there is fear that this woman’s face will be streaked with tears. And then, as if a needle jumped its groove, the sound ceases and is replaced by her panting— healthy exerciser’s panting—as if she’d done a steep stretch on the elliptical trainer. Slack faced, smiling, she covers her mouth to cough. The room temperature drops a few degrees as the flush of embarrassment ebbs.
Sandy knows that crying; she hears all of its parts and pieces. In the dark, she can see it. Jagged streaks of chalk across a blackboard crisscrossing and swirling over and over until the blackness is almost hidden behind a veil of white dust and grit. And when it stops, she knows who is crying, too—the cough is the clue. She thinks about the fingernail polish, chewed away or just neglected. You would have to disown that cry wouldn’t you? Sandy is about to say her name but doesn’t. There’s someone else here who could cry like that. There’s someone whose name she says out loud with a little glee, with a little accusation.
Photo credit: Detail of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Blind Man’s Bluff, oil on canvas, 1755–56, Toledo Museum of Art, from Wikicommons.