You Play a Game by Gabriel Houck


It is intolerable to imagine we are being watched. This was your feeling in church as a boy. In church, your thoughts were not your own. Or: your thoughts were not for you alone. God and Grandma and the long-dead relatives were all there, watching when your body taught itself what makes it happy, when you faked an injury at tryouts, when you lied to friends and passed your hurts on to the smaller, weaker kids whose unpardonable sin was to have some mirage of yourself visible in the way they moved through the world. 


It is intolerable to imagine we are going it alone. This was your feeling when your canoe tipped and the dog went with it, swept beneath the treefall along the bank and fighting to keep her nose above the surface. Or: this was your feeling after, once she was back on solid ground, half-drowned, vibrating underneath your touch like her heart had fallen into unstable orbit. You saw her in tea-colored sunlight descending through the water. She is afraid, you’d thought, though your hands were the ones that shook. You built a fire, wondering if any cells in the body remembered deep time – if any saw nothingness coming and took its familiar hand.   


Now you are older. Now you are alone, and when you feel this fact draped heavy across your shoulders, you play a game. If God and Grandma are watching, if they watched when you and some boys like you made Michael Theriot take his underwear off in the 6th grade bathroom, knowing P.E. was next, knowing he’d have to change into gym shorts with his penis in full view so that you and the boys like you could laugh at the frightening, familiar strangeness of his body – what is their context for this scene? Do they account for the strangers you pulled from the wreck on I-55, many years later? Do they acknowledge that you were driving to meet your mistress then – the first in a string of soul-deadening affairs – or do they see only the speed with which you hopped the rail, the initiative you took in pulling their keys from the ignition while the wheels still spun free, hissing upside down, fighting the air for purchase? 


After you pulled your dog from the river – and until the final afternoon, when you held her face until she went quiet (a little sigh and that’s it) – you’d sworn she would not be alone when the time came. It was the only meaningful promise you’ve kept, to be nearby when those old pathways lit up and guided her out into the void. The Australian poet Frederic Manning once described witnessing death in wartime as a re-affirmation of the life of the observer. No, it is not I, you say. I shall not be like that. But of course, you will. 


And what of your future selves? Even now they see you, through memory or machine. They might look at the light from those days, preserved in leaves on some neural tree, and offer up a sense of their presence in the moment, like ghosts saying stop, stop, please just stop. They are the ones who know Michael Theriot dies in prison when he’s twenty four. They know the thirty-three miners trapped in Chile will survive, that every one of them, impossibly, will be sucked through a tube the width of a man from a tomb two miles beneath the earth. It is intolerable.   


You hope your future selves will not recognize this ruined body you’ll deliver them. Think of the dog’s ashes on your bookshelf: dust dust dust. Maybe you are a stranger to them now. Say a prayer. Maybe you have built them a ship, piece by piece, that has slipped its tether to the boy – that one with your name – who stripped another boy to laugh at the cruelty of the body itself, because what else could we have done but laugh, but hate and love the shame of being briefly alive and unsure if anyone was watching.