Sometime in the hazy midsection of the sunbaked summer between fourth and fifth grades, a dozen or so boys and girls from my class took it upon themselves to profoundly alter their lifestyles. I did not know what had led to this decision; I only knew that the boys who had been best at burping and the girls who had been best at braiding were suddenly, come autumn, pairing off behind the backstop for after-school sessions of experimental and not-entirely-chaste kissing. This being the 1970s, none of the authority figures at Gardner Bumbry Elementary School seemed interested in dispersing these gatherings, which presumably were part of normal child development, though not part of my normal child development.
I had, at the time, a very tall friend named Dino. Dino and I liked playing basketball and telling jokes. Our jokes were of a gentle genre, one no longer rewarded by the new social paradigm: What’s a slumber party for wood? A LUMBER party! Dino and I did not play with girls behind the backstop. We were aghast as a pair of Salem Puritans. I really did say the words, “I don’t need to grow up that fast,” and Dino really did agree with me. Partly, though, I think we were a little disturbed that we didn’t want to join the behind-the-backstop brigade.
Nevertheless, Dino and I decided to fight those rogue elements of change that did appear in our personalities. When we, almost overnight, began to swear like sailors, we decided it had to be stopped, and made a pact that each time one of us cursed, the other would give him a “frog” in the arm—that is, a punch with the middle knuckle protruding. Frogs hurt. For a little while our arms were always black and blue. Then we stopped swearing.
The new lovers, meanwhile, ruled the school. The boys walked with strange struts, their arms bent halfway as if they were too musclebound to hang at their sides. They always wore narrow-eyed looks as if they’d just kicked someone’s ass when all they’d done was touch tongues with some exuberantly confused girl. We had not trained for the game they were playing; we had no concept of the fundamentals. All we could do was stay on the basketball court, as far away from the backstop and its mysteries as possible.
One day, six crooked-armed loverboys led by the smooth and recklessly self-assured Danny C. asked us if we wanted to play four-on-four. “We’ll play you two-on-six,” said Dino, who was less smooth but equally self-assured. Dino and I beat Danny C.’s boys, 66-14, game called on account of darkness. The next day we came to school expecting that we had vanquished the odd new world and returned childhood to children everywhere. We had not.
That year, I became a sort of tourist in the world of 10-year-olds, the kind of tourist who steps from the plane, scouts the scene, and shrugs. I didn’t even bother to speak pidgin-kid. I was becoming a big boy, but I didn’t much dirty my hands in the world of big boys. I passed through it, hit the books, shot my jump shots, ran solitary suicide sprints, fought for position under the boards at recess, threw a few elbows in anger, tried to be wise like an old man and innocent like a little boy. I thought I was upholding family standards, but I suppose I did it for myself.
My boyhood was mostly a private affair, concerned with such matters as whether, if I envied someone, would God, with a shrug (Fine, if that’s the way you want it), erase my own destiny and assign me the destiny of the fellow I’d envied. This possibility disturbed me to no end. Though I lamented my today, I was quite sure that my tomorrow was something wondrous. And here I’d gone and forfeited it by reflecting on, say, loverboy Danny C.’s nonchalance with the girls, and wishing for an instant that it was mine. To envy was an act of inexcusable ungratefulness, nothing less than telling God the life He’s given you just isn’t good enough. You can’t expect to say that to God and go unpunished. I decided that God, being a witty fellow, would punish me by giving me exactly what I asked for, but writ large: You want to be like Danny C? Here, BE Danny C.
In this game of destiny poker, I’d have an envious thought while performing some action such as, say, walking through a doorway, and the only way I could regain my own destiny was to back through the door while unthinking the thought, then pass through again with less perfidious thoughts. Sometimes, instead of a step through a door, the reversible action would be a spoken word, which was to be undone by a series of rapid swallows, as if retracting the utterance letter by letter. (This had nothing to do with the meaning of the word itself; it mattered only that the word—any word—had been spoken as I thought an envious thought.) The reversible action could also be a blink or a breath or a swallow itself. (Try to undo a swallow. It is neither easy nor pleasant, and most often results in a sore throat.)
On bad days, getting from place to place took a long time, starting from the early morning, when I would clean and unclean body parts, eat and uneat Wheaties, brush and unbrush teeth, wear and unwear underpants. Getting my socks on was a particular problem. So many toes, and the envious thought could accompany the moment the sock passed over any of them. My walk to the bus stop was a strange footrace of covertly retraced steps, halting strides and little backward head thrusts to put my nose behind the branch above as I reflected that, No, I do not need Danny C.’s nonchalance. Not one bit.
I became skilled at making these movements almost invisible to the eyes of others. They were very quick, or performed when no one was looking, or so tiny that they hardly passed as a twitch. I also learned to foresee envious thoughts and to pause, motionless, while either pre-empting them or allowing them to pass before I took another step. I suppose, though, that I could be spied from time to time walking back and forth across a crack in the neighborhood’s old asphalt until I got the unthought properly accomplished and an appropriate new thought appropriately thought.
Our brindle boxer, Brassy, was a year older than me. I have seen pictures of her guarding my cradle. When I think about her, my feelings are strangely similar to my feelings about my mother. Since my eighth birthday, it had been my job to give Brassy food and water. Each morning I gave her two cans of Alpo and filled her water bowl from our chewed and battered backyard hose. It was a simple enough job for a while, but soon I got poor Brassy all tied up in my anxieties. By the time I was 10, this was a very real and time-consuming problem. If, for instance, I thought an envious thought about Danny C. while filling Brassy’s bowl, I’d have to pour the water on the lawn and start over.
The problem here was not that I would suffer Danny C.’s destiny, but that Brassy would. She’d drink that water and she’d still look like a dog afterward, but deep down she’d have turned into Danny C. And I really couldn’t live with it if my dog, who was like a mother to me, turned into Danny C. Think about it: How would she be able to tell me what had happened? How would I even know, except to have a sickening sense in my stomach that I had traded away her beloved existence? The terrible thing about turning into someone else, or having your pet turn into someone else, is how do you know that it happened? For all I know, I may be living Danny C.’s life right now.
The stakes were high in the dog-bowl game. If I lost my destiny, well, I brought it on myself. But if poor Brassy lost hers, I’m a criminal! What right did I have to trade away another being’s destiny? What can a destiny-trader do but despise himself for all eternity? And, while I’d feel sorry for Brassy, I’d also feel sorry for me, because who wants their dog to be Danny C?
One particular winter morning, a morning that sticks in my mind more than all the others, I had dumped one bowl of water and was carefully refilling when the thought of Danny C. and his dozen girls came to mind. I poured the water out and tried again, but the thought kept springing up like a stiff hair. Soon there was a small pond on the lawn. I had to keep trying until I’d thought just the right thought, one from which Danny C. had been cleanly excised. It had to be a thankful thought, about me being me and my brindle boxer being my brindle boxer and us being extremely grateful to God and Mom and Dad and my big brother, Simon, for the blessing of being who we were.
On my fifth try, the hose touched the rim of Brassy’s chunky blue bowl just as I had a mindflash of a smirking Danny C. Now I was really in trouble. I would have to touch the hose to the exact same spot on the rim of the bowl while the bowl was the exact same percentage full as it had been at the moment of the envious thought.
My mother looked out the back door and saw me tap-tap-tapping the hose on the bowl while tip-tip-tipping the bowl to spill minute amounts over the side and swallowing and unswallowing and blinking and unblinking (don’t ask) with poor Brassy circling me wildly waiting for a drink.
“What are you doing?”
I looked up and shrugged.
Mom shook her head and closed the door but kept looking out the window. I had to get it right on my next try. Be gone, Danny C! But Danny C. wouldn’t be gone. I kept tapping the bowl and tipping the bowl, but I tapped a little to the left of where I should have tapped and I tipped out a little more water than I should have tipped. I finally tapped and tipped just right, but as I was putting the bowl down I saw Danny C., arms bent and eyes narrow, grinning. I poured some more water out.
The puddle was spreading around me and Brassy’s paws were getting cold in it and my shoes were soaked, and I thought, I bet Danny C. doesn’t have to deal with this. My mother was looking out at me and down at me, her brow a little wrinkled and her mouth a little open, wondering what had become of her son, as if she hadn’t been watching all these years.
I vowed to try one more—one last—time, and I took a deep breath and I tapped the hose to the rim of the bowl while imagining myself and Brassy running joyfully through a vast forest where a glorious morning sun shone through lime-green leaves and cast speckled shadows on the twiggy tan ground. Danny C. dropped down from a branch, agile, flushed and smiling, and said, Don’t you wish you could climb like me? And I said, But I can! And with that, I thought I had him beaten, but he wouldn’t disappear, and said only, Whatever. At that point I knew I’d never have him beaten. You cannot beat someone who, when beaten, says, Whatever.
I turned and threw Brassy’s blue bowl at our cinderblock wall. It struck with a great thud but did not crack. Brassy ran toward it, barking wildly. My mother walked out once more and said, What the hell are you doing?
How could I possibly tell her?
Excerpted from the forthcoming novel This Game We Play.