Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The House That Jack Built

People who could be frightened, people who were insecure, people who admired us; these were our prey. We brought them to her house and invited them to play a game with us, a game they had never heard of. It was a game they could not win, a game they could not loose, a game they could not stop. It was The House That Jack Built.

It began sometime in 1990. I had only just become aware of the passage of time, that there were numbers assigned to years. I had found a newspaper in the garage and read a headline about the gulf war. A strange electrical sensation coursed through my body. War. I had heard of war. I changed schools that year and entered into the fifth grade in a program for gifted children. That was when I received my first phone call. That’s when it began.

Other children had called in the past to arrange play dates or invite me to birthday parties. But no one had ever called just to talk to me before. I sat on the dark steps leading into the rumpus room with the black rotary phone between my feet. Brow furrowed, I believe I asked her:
“What do you want?”
“Just to talk.”
“I should go now.” I said, wishing to return to my own inner world, to the sanctity of home and hood.
“Why?” she asked.
“My friend Sarah is coming over.” I told her.

Sarah lived across the street. Sarah and my sister and I had eaten and bathed and played and slept together since I was three years old. There was very little separation between myself and Sarah, myself and my sister, myself and my parents. Just as meals appeared three times a day and bath water ran once after dark, Sarah would appear before noon and we would all play dolls or house or ride bikes up and down the streets or run through the fields playing freeze tag or dance to a Paula Abdul cassette. Other children from the neighborhood might participate or not, but Sarah would be there like sunshine, or spring, or inhalation. It was pre-ordained, habitual, mechanical, natural. I had almost no sense of self. I was the accumulation of these many daily rituals, the appearance and disappearance of these other characters, the texture and variety of landscape, of house and hood.
“Sarah who?” she asked.
“Butler.” I told her.
“The earwig. Tell the little earwig I said hi.” And hearing that sentence uttered in that particular tone, nuanced as it was, changed everything. That phone call was the beginning, although at the time I didn’t know it. That was the beginning of my fall, my descent into the outer world.
Suddenly someone from outside had just created a conspiratorial connection with me. With that utterance, she plucked me from unity and bliss. Sarah was no longer a part of my self. Sarah was an earwig, and she and I could have a laugh at Sarah’s expense. Sarah’s presence in my life diminished. My interest in her as something other than an object of ridicule waned. When her mother remarried and they vanished from the neighborhood a year later, I stood in front of her house feeling the loss, realizing she had been gone for a long time, I had banished her, and now she could never be retrieved.

By 1993 my experience of self had become inverted. My family had moved. There was a new house, a new hood, new kids, a suburban landscape, all alien to me. My parents were strangers as well. Even my own body was unfamiliar. By then I was in middle school and she and I were no longer in the same class. Nonetheless I still received the phone calls, now via a cordless phone that I could carry to my room.
She came to my house to “hang out” or I visited hers. We invented a language composed of two words, “Giba” and “dumbass.” We would converse as if we understood one another perfectly, making observations about those around us, including my sister, most of which were concluded with the word “dumbass”. If my sister attempted to join the conversation and play along, we looked confounded, as though we could not understand her, but we could still communicate with one another, and we would discuss this creature making its attempts to establish contact with us, but we would never speak back to it.

The houses in the new neighborhood were identical. I would marvel over the fact that the boy three doors down was living in a structure of precisely the same shape. As I moved through my own house I was moving phantom-like through his. I would imagine going into his house, which corners I could duck into to go unnoticed as he passed, how I could give him a push down the stairs, his stairs which were identical to my stairs. Or how I might enter his room, identical to my own, while he slept and simply be there, uninvited.

1995. We were high school freshmen. We had some classes together. Sleepovers abounded. She was given the basement floor of her house as a bedroom. It had an exit into the backyard. Our fusion reached its peak. I was now distinctly “I”, a separate, confused, and lonely entity, but together there was a “we”, just “she” and “I” together, and we were ready to unleash our games upon the inferior masses.

We would invite them to her house and pull out a deck of cards.
“Have you ever played the house that Jack built?” we would ask. Invariably they answered “no” or “what’s that?”
Now came the fun. We would invite them to play with us, would shuffle the deck and deal out cards. Then we would play. The only rules in The House That Jack Built were that there were no rules other than those that she and I invented as we went along. Naturally, only she and I knew this, and we would confirm the validity of one another’s plays and confuse and shock those we were playing with.

Gradually, our playmates might begin to suspect that they were the butt of some joke, but we would continue to play with such passion and sincerity that they would doubt their own perceptions. If, smiling, they accused us of making things up, we would assure them that we weren’t, that they’d get the hang of it soon enough, it was really quite simple…
Frequently a card play would be accompanied by a loud pronouncement:
“And this is the house that Jack built!” or “Gone fishing!”
At that point we would collect all the cards that had been “played” in the center, or take away the hand of the other player, or some equivocal gesture of triumph that would leave our victim with the sense of impending defeat. The game would go on endlessly, however, and we’d take pains to steer it away from any form of completion.

Eventually our victim would beg to end the game, insist that they had to stop and we would inform them that there could be no stopping until the game was finished. We would lean in on them, glare menacingly, grin sardonically. Something in the air would change. They could not win, they could not loose, and they could not stop. Desperately some would insist that they had just lost the game, trying to join us in the rule defining, referring back to some similar situation earlier in the game for which we would always have an exception,
“Yes, but you only give up your cards if you have no clubs in hand.” or “No, all the cards must be reshuffled and re-dealt when the eight of spades precedes the queen of hearts.”
Afternoon would turn to evening. Our victim would sweat, grow quarrelsome, or cry.

There were no adults left to monitor either of us at this point in our history. We would decide as school let out to take the bus to her house. On the bus we would select who we would or would not invite for our games.
One night as we walked home from the bus stop we asked a bony acne scarred girl from her neighborhood to come over. Nicole was the kind of innocent who hadn’t learned yet to conceal her emotions. Nicole told us in her high nasal voice, that she would go home and do her homework first, then tell her mother and finally come by around 4:00. She arrived at 3:45. That was the kind of girl Nicole was.

In the basement we sat atop the washer and dryer with Nicole between us taking turns playing with a small hunting knife I‘d coerced from a boy in my Math class. I would pass it to her and she would pass it to me, but we would never pass it to Nicole who watched the blade while talking in short nervous bursts and fingering the hem of her skirt.
Suddenly She grabbed Nicole by the hair and ran the dull edge of the blade along her throat. Nicole gave out a small startled cry. As she was released, Nicole touched her throat, finding it intact, and started to sob. We smiled mockingly. Without a word Nicole grabbed her sweater and pounded away up the stairs and out the front door.

People who could be frightened, people who were insecure, people who admired us; these were our prey. We brought them to her house and invited them to play a game with us, a game they had never heard of. It was a game they could not win, a game they could not loose, a game they could not stop. It was The House That Jack Built and it wore them down, made them loose their hopeful grins, their sycophantic giggles, their pathetic displays of wit or humor.
In the end, they usually begged, especially when we lay the dull edge of the knife against their throats. Most of them believed we would do it by then, after the hours of suspicion turned to self doubt returned again to suspicion. After we had whittled away their trust in us and any tidbits of faith that they had in themselves, they would see the knife, then feel steel sliding against their flesh, and they would believe for a moment that their throat had just been slit. They would sit there wide eyed, waiting for their lives to bleed out.
For some of them, this was the moment when they lost unity, bliss. For others it was just one more crippling blow. And for just a few, it was the first time in a long while that they had lost themselves, completely and utterly vanishing in the moment, only to re-emerge into singularity a moment later, blinking and breathing and staring into our houses, identical to their own.