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Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Game With No Rules

This is the Prologue of the next novel I'm working on.  It's a short story written by the protagonist of the rest of the book, regarding how he met the title character.

It was published a little while ago in a local art zine, and you can check that out, along with all the great stuff many of my peers and second-degree acquaintances are doing here

***


The rock bounces twice off the sidewalk in front of him, the second time much harder than the first.  It jumps up to about waist level, slowing down almost perceptibly as it approaches the zenith of the arc.  It picks up speed again on its way down so fast that for a brief second he loses sight of it before it bounces quickly 4 or 5 times in succession, dribbling ahead across the square concrete tiles.

The game doesn’t have any rules, you see.  Those are his favorite games to come up with.  With so much time on his hands, he has a great deal available for playing games.  He thinks them up so often, it’s difficult for him to remember with very much certainty if each game is really unique, a new iteration of a previous theme, or just a game he hasn’t played for a while and has forgotten that he came up with already.  No matter.  He’s played enough games, and enough of them were sufficiently unique that he feels he’s an authority.  He’s an expert in the field.  His opinion should be respected.  And his favorite games are the ones with no rules.

Perhaps they’re not completely devoid of rules.  If there were truly no rules, there would be no structure to his actions around which to qualify it as a game.  It’s more specifically that they’re games with no winning conditions.  No losing conditions.  Like this game.  He kicks the rock and it skips down the sidewalk.  If the rock stops on the sidewalk without hitting another rock, then he kicks it again.  If it hits another rock, then he kicks that one next.  If it lands on the grassy patch between the sidewalk and the curb, then he has the option to switch to another rock of his choosing from the sidewalk in the vicinity of the original rock, or he can kick said original rock, but has to do so with full force (therefor parked cars in the vicinity have to be taken into account).  If the rock goes in the road he switches to another rock.  In the event that the rock hits a bottle cap (metal or plastic, though metal ones are a bit of a pain in the ass to kick), he has to switch to that and keep kicking it until it goes in the street regardless of it hitting other rocks or landing in the grass.  Really, that’s quite a lot of rules, and yet, as there’s no penalty for breaking any of them – no way of winning or losing – there’s no real pressure, and they don’t really feel so much like rules any more.  It’s that way with all his favorite games, and this is one of them.

He comes up to the rock and kicks it again.  The tile of sidewalk a few feet ahead is tilted at a wild angle – pushed up by the root of one of the maples that line the residential hillside – and the rock goes flying off it, up and to the side, ricocheting off the tree, and coming to rest at its base on a tuft of grass just past the offending root.

He looks down at the rock.  His grey blue eyes squint, the wrinkles around them multiplying and becoming more pronounced as the pale orbs between dart back and forth, scanning the dimly lit block ahead.  Most of the sidewalk, grass and gutter are carpeted in a layer of brown and orange leaves, trampled and soaked into a solid, patterned sheet.  A car is parked across the street, facing the other way, but there’s no one in it.  A dog barks two streets over.  The orange light of the five working streetlights on either side of the road makes a nearly intersecting series of cones in the fog down the street, broken only by the branches of balding trees like gnarled black hands reaching up silently and motionlessly from the ground.  Fog is his favorite weather pattern, for what it takes away in visual definition, it always seems to make up for in striking, ominous beauty and mysterious potential.  He’s very proud of that tradeoff.

For a brief moment, even the wind, the distant ambulance siren, and the insects crawling around beneath his feet seem to take notice and pay homage.  Everything he put there, everything he allowed to develop…  Everything he started and watched and nurtured – even the parts he didn’t really plan but knew would be interesting to observe and learn from – for one brief moment all sigh together in respect for their Father.  He always likes to think of it like that.  More like his child than his creation.  A slight distinction, true – after all, a child is, in a way, merely a creation – but an important one to him.  He’s proud that he made it all, sure.  But he’s more than just proud of it.  He loves it.  He isn’t just impressed at himself for being clever enough to have come up with a good idea or even for having the motivation and wherewithal to execute his idea (though he is certainly pleased with that, too).  The truth is, more than anything else he’s continually proud of and amazed by It; his creation.  Every time he notices a new way in which the very loose parameters he set up are yielding wildly new and interesting interactions and concepts – and those interactions and concepts are spawning still more interesting and beautiful interactions and concepts – it makes him feel that amazing feeling again.

That feeling was the trick.  The really clever part.  The part without which no amount of motivation would have ever gotten this wonderfully complicated and terrifyingly magnificent experiment off the ground.  This feeling tied it all together.  It made it worth doing.  The initial stages were neat; the patterns and colors and chemical reactions were all picturesque and exquisite in their own, very academic, literal style.  But one day, while taking in the glorious abstract complexity of it all, he felt the first glimmers of that feeling.  It was so new and exciting, he needed to explore it.  And the more he explored it, the more he wanted to share it.  This is what gave the project a dimension through which to grow into the convoluted beauty before him.  In order to share the feeling, he needed living things that could feel it, to share the feeling with.  You see, while the atoms and molecules are perfect and fascinating, the plants and animals and people can change their surroundings in far more complex and accretive fashion.  They’ve spent most of their existence actively doing so in an effort to get closer to the feeling.  In the process they’ve brought forth a self-balancing, interlinked world ecology and within it developed things like societies and languages and philosophies and sciences and technologies…  The drive of everything that thinks or feels, to feel exactly as he does right now, is what’s made this place so staggeringly complicated and interwoven and fantastic.  And he doesn’t remember planning any of that.

That’s what makes him the proudest.  That’s what makes him love it as much as he does.  It’s doing so many things he never could have foreseen or planned on.  There is really no better way to think of it than as a child.  At first it could have been likened to a painting or a song… a dish he was cooking.  The elements were there to be played with.  They augmented one another, balanced, shifted, changed, took different forms and shapes – but it was always just moving around blocks.  The sum was zero.  When life came into the picture, the whole nature of the game became more like watching the evolution of musical genres or influential writers; it suddenly felt like it was headed somewhere.  He’s also very proud of that mirror effect, where aspects of the creation grew and developed to reflect his perception of the creation as a whole.  He remembers having spent an extra moment setting up the guidelines that allowed that particular pattern to evolve, mandating that some reflection of the whole be present in every aspect of the creation.  He’s even rather fond of the phrase people came up with for referring to the phenomenon, “As above, So below”, despite its directional bias.  Sometimes, as a coy inside joke with himself, when he hears someone say it, he’ll reply, “…And also to the left and the right.”

Light traffic passes briskly at the large intersection a few blocks ahead.  Nothing else moves for an eternal moment, waiting for him to exhale and let time resume its customary gait.  His eyes relax imperceptibly as his focus shifts to the corner 15 yards ahead.  The edge of his mouth twitches his bristly, unkempt, yet voluminous moustache slightly and his lower jaw moves just far enough to the right to allow him to hold that position and squint one eye for a moment’s extra precision.  He presses his tongue against his teeth and takes two bounding strides that – were there anyone present to see them – would seem strikingly brisk, dexterous and purposeful for a man of his apparent age.  As his left foot plants, the right swings effortlessly past it, plucking out the rock with its toe and sending it sailing toward the corner, where it scuttles down the slope toward the intersection and rolls into the crosswalk.  Crosswalks have their own set of rules that vary with road condition and what can be considered a legitimate rock as opposed to merely a smallish chunk of asphalt with perhaps a few pebbles stuck in it.  Kicking asphalt chunks is a completely separate game all together, with totally different ballistic tendencies and resultant strategies.

He smiles to himself contentedly, looking up from the rock’s final resting place for this round of the game to his destination across the street.  As he steps forward, two teenagers round the corner, the taller yelling at no one in particular, “WHO’S THROWING FUCKIN’ ROCKS?!”  He knows not to answer the question.  People of that age group rarely ask questions out loud that they actually want answered, and in the few cases they slip up, they never stay silent long enough to allow an answer.  To that end, the ruffian continues, “YOU THROWIN’ ROCKS, OLD MAN?”

This question he considers answering, but first takes a moment to remember the youth.  Not because he loves him especially, but because he wants to appreciate the boy’s role in this whole drama; not to say he’s glad the role exists, but he certainly appreciates that it has to, in order for the patterns to continue to repeat and multiply as they always have.  “As above, So below”.  He could call it a shame, or a pitiful waste of what should be a time of innocence, but what’s a Waste, really?  When you’re walking in a circle, any time you waste is time you would have otherwise spent going nowhere.  That said, it’s nice, from time to time, to mark points on whatever circle one walks, for reference, when later trying to figure out how wide the spiral’s gotten.  He smiles his understanding for a moment in between two seconds.  The aggressor approaches, the lens through which time squeezes widens and releases its grip.  “Nope.  Kicking them.  I’m kicking them,” the older man mutters in his cracked, ashen voice.

“The fuck are you kicking rocks for?”

“Research.”

The kid glares at him with impudence as his friend walks up from behind.  “Hey man, listen, we’ll give you five bucks if you get us some vodka,” chimes in this shorter thug as he approaches.

The old man smiles again, “Five bucks?”

“Five bucks, man, get you a couple more shots for yourself or whatever.”

He laughs and shakes his head.  “That’s against the rules,” he says, stepping around the taller boy, who looms an imposing five inches over him, despite his baby face.  As he passes, the hooligan pushes him against a nearby light post, leaning over him as the other kid glances frantically up and down the street.

“Yo, he was asking you nice, old man!  You wanna see what it’s like when I ask you not so nice?”

“Kevin, what the fuck you, doin’, man?” his comrade appeals, “Dude’s just some bum, he ain’t got shit for us, man.”

“Shut the fuck up, man,” replies the first.  Turning back on his victim, “Yo, what you got, man?  Where’s your wallet?”  Before the old man can answer, a voice rings out from the other side of the street.  By the time the thug lets go, his friend is halfway up the block and running at full speed.  Backing away slowly before jogging off in another direction, he points at the old man, “I’ll be just around the corner when you get me that bottle, motherfucker.  Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”  He punches his hand against his fist menacingly before turning and fleeing.

“Worry…” the old man chuckles to himself as he adjusts his coat.  From the darkness hanging over the middle of the street emerges the owner of the voice that startled away his assailants.

“You okay, man?” asks the passerby, a guy in his late twenties, wearing a beige windbreaker and wide-rimmed glasses.

“It wasn’t a problem.”  The old man turns to cross the street.

“‘Wasn’t a problem’?!” his would-be savior calls after him, “Those fucking kids could’ve killed you or something, man.  We gotta call the police…”  He trails off.  No one is listening.  He watches as the old man shuffles through the intersection, steps onto the opposite curb and, without a word, pushes open the door to the convenience store and walks in, the neon sign blinking on and off erratically as the door slams shut behind him, jiggling the electrical contact.

The old man moves briskly down the fluorescent aisles of the convenience store, hobbling slightly on his right leg, as he had spent the previous week limping around on the left, which was now sore.  As he turns past the counter, he and the fat guy behind the counter acknowledge one another without meeting eyes, both nodding a muttered hello without putting forth more than the minimum effort, a sort of ironic reverence in the lack of formality.  A moment later, the Samaritan from the corner shuffles in from the cold, looking around confusedly before approaching the counter.  “Did-uh… Did an old guy just come in here?” his eyes wide, he searches the clerk’s face for the end of his question, “There were some kids… They were accosting him… I think I scared them off, but maybe you should call the poli-”

“Hey Charlie,” the overweight shop-keep yells over the younger man’s shoulder, never taking his eyes off the infomercial announcer chanting sales mantras on the screen mounted above the cash register, “Those kids giving you shit again?”

The old man emerges from behind a display of corn chips, but it’s not clear immediately if the question got his attention or, if it did, whether he has any intention of answering.  He examines the bags as if looking for a long forgotten Easter egg nobody smelled yet.  The young man watches him, in a mildly shocked state – somewhere between curiosity, bewilderment, and something verging on resentment that this bizarre stranger wasn’t at least more thankful.  The beginnings of sentences float through his head: “You know you should be more careful…”, “Hey, a thanks would be nice…”, “What the fuck, dude…”, but he says nothing, and instead just watches with increasing wonder as the greybeard carefully rearranges Gatorade bottles by alphabetical order of colors: blue, green, orange, purple, red…

The clerk watches television.

After what feels like more moments than should ever be spent spectating any public event so candidly, the young man begins to once again formulate the beginning of a question.  As he’s about to decide what to ask first, the old man begins to speak.  He doesn’t look up from what he’s doing – sorting through sealed packages of powdered donuts and sniffing them, as if to check for freshness – he just starts talking without ceremony, as if replying to another in a series of conversation points they never touched on, “Kevin and Donnie might be a pain in the ass, but at heart, they’re decent enough kids, considering the lot they’ve got to measure up against lately…  Well, Donnie is anyway.  Kevin’s a bit more of a wild card.  Lot of anger in that one.  It’s not the anger that’s the problem, I suppose, but what do you do with all of it?...” he trails off momentarily, picking out a pack of batteries and a single serving packet of Alka-Seltzer.  He glances over at the two men at the counter, flashing a smile at his new young acquaintance, who, feeling suddenly very alone in the room, looks over at the clerk behind him.  The third man continues to watch television.  Now having to balance things on his arms – 2 bags of chips, a Danish, a 6 pack of chocolate frosted donuts (the powdered ones weren’t as fresh), a mini-screwdriver, a condom, the batteries and stomach pills – the old man glances down the last aisle as if to reassure himself there’s nothing new there, continuing, “Anyway, you call the cops on them now, they’ll never reach their full potential.  Best to let kids be kids.  We all have our roles to play.  What’s your role Matthew?”

“What?”

“The usual, eh Charlie?” the clerk grunts, spitting his dip into the plastic 64-ounce soda cup by the cash register, and begins scanning the collection of sundries as they avalanche from the old man’s embrace.  He puts them off to the side after scanning each one, where Charlie picks them up and inserts them into what appears to be a constantly multiplying number of pockets in his large overcoat.  The two fall into this pattern with the grace of a pair of figure skaters, each seeming to know exactly what the other’s next move will be, never making eye contact, and yet locked into one another’s actions like an orchestra of two.

As he fills his pockets, Charlie surveys the wall behind the clerk, his eyes passing vaguely over a collage of colorful labels and different colored liquids, fading from black through varying shades of brown and beige and yellow until they come to the clear ones on the right.  “Gimme a pint of Gordon’s too, Hal.” 

The clerk turns and picks a bottle off the shelf.  Returning to the counter, he glances over his patron’s shoulder.  “Need something, kid?”

Snapping out of his trance at the question, Matthew – who had been gazing at the transaction in slack-jawed astonishment – stammers some guttural noises as his mind scrambles to gain traction, still reeling at the sound of its own name in an unfamiliar and unexpected context.  His train of thought slamming back into place on its tracks abruptly, the first intelligible sentence that rises to the surface is, “What’d you just say to me?”

“I asked you what you needed.  What’re you on drugs or somethin’?”

“No, him…” he approaches the counter, putting his hand on the old man’s shoulder, “What’d you just ask me?”

Charlie turns to meet Matthew’s eyes with his own innocent stare.  For an uncountable second, that reckless smile flashes over the old man’s face despite his not moving a muscle.  And then he blinks, and when his eyes open again, he’s just a confused old man, not sure what he’s being asked.  “I beg your pardon?”

“A second ago… You asked me what my role is.  What the fuck did you mean by that?”

Hal puts down the scanner and leans in, “Hey, buddy, you want something, you wait your turn.  Leave Charlie alone, huh?”

“Look, I’m not trying to start anything, I just want to know what he meant by it—”

“Nobody’s startin’ nothing,” the man behind the counter says with a finality that resonates off the glass doors on the other side of the room.  He leans even farther out, all his weight pivoting on his planted elbow, his index finger outstretched, “Him I know.  You I don’t.  Settle down or take a walk.”  He points to the door.

“How much do I owe you, Hal?” smiles the old man, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a wad of bills, change, and pocket lint. 

Matthew watches the two men settle up, unsure now if he’s dreaming; if the societal norms of public behavior had drastically changed since he last left his apartment.  Or maybe he’s just gone completely insane and is the only one who heard any of Charlie’s earlier monologue.  The old man takes his change and mutters a farewell at the clerk, who is already looking back up at the television and replies with an unintelligible grunt.  Matthew watches him pass, and as he approaches the door, finally finds the words to call after him one last time, “How did you know my name?”

The old man turns and holds the door open with his back.  “Who’s to say I did?  I’m just a crazy old man.  Probably best not to pay attention to me.  I rarely do.”  He smiles broadly one last time, and tips his non-existent hat, “Until we return and begin again…”  With that, he turns out into the wind and heads back up the street, soon finding a rock to kick along the sidewalk on the way.

Matthew stares at the door for a moment until he hears from behind him, “Well… you need something?”

His head snaps around to the clerk and he thinks back to why he left home in the first place.  It feels like that was days ago for some reason.  Like the last fifteen minutes lasted longer than all of his childhood memories put together.  “Cigarettes…  Pack of cigarettes.”

Hal eyes him dryly, “What kind?”

“Uh… it doesn’t really matter.”

The clerk doesn’t look away.  “You sure you’re not on drugs, kid?”

“Yeah, I’m just…” he glances back over his shoulder at the door, “Did you not…”  He looks back at Hal and fades off.  There is nothing in the man’s face that hints at interest or even anything less hostile than annoyance.  “Sorry.  I haven’t been getting much sleep lately.  American Spirits.  Rollies.  Thanks.”

Hal turns around with a huffing sigh and bends over to get the smokes.  Turning back, he asks, “That all you need?”

Matthew leans on the counter and stares at the door.  Trying to account for any aspect of the evening’s encounter that he can make any sense of at all and coming up empty.  “I guess I thought so…”

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