Let’s Play a Game

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Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

A short story by Heather Nanni

“Hannah,” my mother said, watching me through the rearview mirror. “Think of a name, but don’t tell me what it is. Okay? Did you think of one? Ready?” She waited a minute, glancing back at me and smiling, and then she said, “Blaire.”

I wondered how my mother did it. “Yes, Mommy! Yes! Yes! Do it again. Let’s play again.”

“Okay, Hannah, now remember not to tell me. And be sure not to move your lips. As a matter of fact, why don’t you look out the window? That way I can’t even see your face. All right. Think of a name.” She waited a moment. “Did you think of one? Are you ready?”

“Ready, Mommy.”

“Okay. Here goes.” She made her silly drumroll sound-the one I tried to mimic but couldn’t. “Cindy!”

“Mommy! How do you do that? Again! Again!”

And so the game continued, until my mother had enough. “All right, Hannah. That’s it. Mommy’s tired.”

“Mommy. How did you do it? Tell me how you did it? Is it magic?”

“Hannah, you know there’s no such thing as magic. I’m disappointed at you for even asking. It’s God’s special gift to me.”

“Mommy, do you think God will give me the gift too?”

“No Hannah. Like I said, it’s a special gift from God to me. You have gifts, right? Like the doll I gave you for your birthday? Did Mommy expect a doll too?”

“No Mommy.”

“Well then you can’t expect this gift either.”

That’s how it started. I was six years old when Mom first played the game with me. And, although Mom told me I didn’t have her gift, once, when I was a few years older, I tried to see if she was right. We were having tea together and I said, “Mom, think of a name.”

“Why Hannah?” she asked.

“Because I want to see if I can do what you do.”

But, rather than think of a name, she reached across the table and slapped me in the face. “I told you already! That’s God’s gift to me. You greedy thing!” With that she threw my teacup against the wall, tea and ceramic pieces flying everywhere. After I cleaned the mess, she sent me to my room where I remained until the next morning when she took me to her minister so I could confess my sins. I was eight years old then, and it would be years before I tried my hand at mom’s gift again.

As I got older, mom developed her skills and expanded her repertoire. By the time I was about ten, she no longer limited herself to guessing names. She read my thoughts.

“Hannah, did you like the chicken Mommy made for dinner?

“Hannah, do you like Mommy’s new outfit?”

“Hannah, did you pay attention during today’s sermon?”

My answer was always, “Yes, Mommy,” and her response was invariably, “Oh Hannah. When will you ever stop lying?” Then she would continue with either a reprimand or a beating.

When I was a teenager, I realized my mother was paranoid.

“Hannah, did you tell Kathy about what happened here last night?”

Kathy was my best friend. Of course I told her about what happened the night before. How my mother rolled on the floor and begged God to expel the demons from our house. How she prayed over me, dragged me by the hair and locked me in my bedroom. My mother didn’t wait for me to answer. Instead she punched me on the side of my head and took me to her pastor’s office where they decided it was best to take my phone away and not allow me to see my friends any longer.

Being without friends or any life outside of school gave me a lot of time to study my mother. I learned the only thing that calmed her down after working herself into a frenzy was watching religious videos-mainly of zealot preachers yelling at congregations to repent. One night, she woke me from my sleep and yanked me out of bed. “Did you say your prayers?”

I hadn’t. I had fallen asleep. My mother raised her hand to strike me, and when she did I just closed my eyes and pictured her walking out of my room and going into the living room to watch a video. To my surprise, she lowered her arm and left, and, like a sinner’s sudden realization that Jesus is their Lord and Savior, it came to me­-if I could hold a thought with an image rather than with words, my mother would receive the message without even realizing.

It took a lot of practice and a lot of beatings to perfect my skill. I started small-envisioning a roast chicken rather than asking my mother to make one. It was tricky though. If I allowed the words to slip in-I hope mom makes a roast chicken for dinner-she would hear them.

After about three months, I decided I could put my gift to good use and help my mother manage her meds. She took all sorts of pills-for arthritis, migraines, her heart condition. I got pretty good at visualizing her not taking some, taking too many of others, swallowing entire bottles. One day, in fact, I walked into her room and found her lying on the floor, an empty bottle of heart meds next to her. I never felt so strong in my life. I finally had God on my side.

Of course, I’m nothing like my mother. I would never abuse my gift. Anyway, I’ve got to go and take mom to day care now. She’s never been the same since her unfortunate incident with the pills. She really needs round-the-clock assistance. Looking at her through the rearview mirror, it’s hard to imagine the person she once was.

“Hey Mom. I have an idea. Let’s play a game.”

 

The Chair at the Bottom of the Stairs

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The original version of this story was published under the title “The Chair Downstairs” in November 2017.

The chair was out of place. The design was early American, so it did not fit in with the rest of the room’s Ikea aesthetic. We used to keep it upstairs in our bedroom where we paid it little attention-probably because it was a catchall for our laundry and usually buried under mounds of clothing. But one evening, when we needed extra seating to accommodate guests, we brought it down to the living room and placed it near the bottom of the stairway. It remained there-a dignified outlier, small and stiff, like something an 18th century scholar would sit at as he pored over musty books by dim candlelight-amongst all our other cheap, assemble-yourself furnishings that young people purchase when they first move in together.

Rarely did anyone choose to sit in the chair. I assumed because it looked so uncomfortable. But there was something else about it-a quality of being already occupied. At night, when I’d turn off the lights, I’d dash upstairs, not wanting to be left alone in the dark room with whatever sat in that chair. I could feel it though, watching me take my leave, and when I’d wake during the witching hour, I’d think about the living space below and wonder.

Eventually we moved, but we did not bring the chair along with us. Whatever company it kept, I was finished entertaining.

Reaching Limits

Unable to find the poetry as of late, I thought I’d take a crack at some short fiction….

Reaching Limits

By: Heather Nanni

Gretchen didn’t understand how anyone could drive that slowly. What would possess someone to pull into traffic at breakneck speed then proceed to drive precisely three miles below the speed limit? Just a few minutes earlier, Gretchen was relaxed and moving. Then this person pulled out in front of her- this person, who, in her small royal blue car, would periodically, and for no apparent reason, press the breaks, bringing the speed down to ten miles below the limit and then, again for some indeterminable reason, bring the speed back up slightly above the limit, only to drop it back down to three below. Why? Why pull out and then move so slowly and erratically? Why the urgency to interrupt the flow of traffic? Looking in her rearview mirror, Gretchen could see that there were no other cars in her lane other than the two that were directly behind hers. Why, given that this driver clearly had neither the intention nor the desire to move at the same speed as Gretchen and the two other cars, pull in front of her? The selfishness of it. It infuriated her.

As Gretchen thought about the driver in the blue car, she felt herself become hot, her pulse quicken; she could feel her right ear turn red. With great effort, she attempted to check her anger. She didn’t want to spoil her few minutes of driving. She entertained the idea that the person in front of her had a legitimate reason for going below the speed limit. She searched for a gray head, two frail, aged hands clutching the steering wheel to mitigate her anger, but there were none. If only the person were elderly she could perhaps understand this vehicular injustice…slow reflexes, poor visual spatial perception. But no. As far as she could see, the driver of the car in front of hers was a bob-haired, redheaded female. And there was something about the woman’s posture that told Gretchen that she was certainly not elderly. This she could neither understand nor tolerate. She banged her steering wheel with her fist. She screamed. Fucking just move!!!

She just needed to go-to press her foot to the pedal and move. It pained Gretchen to be constrained by the dictates of this driver, to be forced to put her foot on the break even though there was nothing but open road ahead.   As she approximated how far ahead she would have been had not this person pulled out in front of her, she seethed with anger. To her, anyone who could maintain this rate of speed was someone with low affect, someone who lacked passion, who lacked energy. Didn’t that person have somewhere to go? If she did, then why dawdle? Low affect. Low energy. She couldn’t relate. Everything about Gretchen moved quickly. She talked fast; she walked fast. Her mind raced. Never could Gretchen rest on a single thought; rather, she was always trying to keep up with a barrage of happy thoughts, disturbing thoughts, relentless thoughts racing through her mind, waking her up in the middle of the night, waking her up in the morning-racing thoughts resulting in a racing heart which beat into the mattress at the most rapid, unnatural and dangerous speed. Only movement could ease her mind and, somehow, rescue her from those thoughts that pulled her deeper and deeper into that midnight zone where she became stuck, unable to breathe, and from which she feared she would be unable to surface. Driving-this was an activity that released her captive mind. But this person in front of her…this person didn’t give a shit. It was her world and it moved at her speed, and everyone else could just go and screw themselves. She was a selfish bitch. How else could you explain her, the bob-haired redhead, The Bob, forcing everyone to drive three miles below the speed limit?

Gretchen just didn’t get that kind of person, the kind of person who was indifferent to the rest of the world.   Gretchen had a hyper-awareness of her surroundings, something she attributed to her acute senses. Anything in her periphery was as visible as if it were standing directly in front of her. Scents, unnoticed by others, where to her strong and pungent. She prided herself on being able to identify the age of a home by its smell. Water that years past, and before the installation of the sub-pump, pooled in in the corner of the basement, the grease of sweaty palms touching doorknobs, insect remains moldered into carpets- all revealed themselves to Gretchen’s nose. And getting a full night’s sleep was nearly impossible, given that she awoke with the slightest sounds-the cat jumping off the chair, the stirring of her child in the room next door, the turning on of the furnace when the temperature fell below 74 degrees. Gretchen was aware that the vigilance to which she paid attention to all that surrounded her was beyond the realm of normal, but on the opposite end the spectrum fell this person, The Bob.

As she was forced to press the breaks again for no apparent reason, Gretchen thought back to the previous evening. She was hurriedly picking up a few items at the grocery store when she found herself stuck in a narrow isle, cornered between a man who came to a dead stop to look at his shopping list and a display of cookies and pies. The man, at first, appeared unaware that anyone was behind him. He certainly would have moved if he knew that he was holding someone up. Gretchen stood patiently, convinced that the man was oblivious of her presence although she questioned how it was possible that he didn’t hear her, considering that her shopping cart had a very squeaky wheel. Finally, the man put his list into his pocket and took three steps forward. When Gretchen resumed walking the front tire of her cart gave out a piercing squeal. Now that he knew she was behind him, she assumed that he would feel badly about holding her up. She was relieved. He knew she was there, and they were moving again. She had places to be, a pace to maintain if her night was not going to fall apart. To Gretchen’s dismay, however, the man moved ahead approximately two more paces and then stopped-dead, took out his cell phone and placed a call, all the while Gretchen standing behind him. The anger that had been percolating now came to a full boil, and the sudden urge to just shove the asshole in front of her became almost uncontrollable. Gretchen contained her anger and softly said, “Excuse me.” The man made no acknowledgement other than to move his cart ever so slightly to the right, giving Gretchen barely enough room to squeeze through. She muttered “prick” under her breath and proceeded to finish her shopping – nervously, concerned that the man had heard her call him a prick and that they would run into each other again. Gretchen loathed confrontation, but she was so angry, so very angry, and as she completed her shopping, she became angrier just thinking about what had happened.   She worried about how she would react if she were to run into the man a second time, so she kept her head down and moved as quickly as possible, hoping to finish her shopping and get the hell out of the store without having another encounter with him.

And now here she was again, trapped behind another selfish shit. She thought about how very different she was from these other people. Whenever Gretchen found herself holding someone up, she was mortified. She recalled a situation a few weeks back. She was stopped at a traffic light and had picked up her phone to check her messages. Somehow she managed to drop it between the console and the passenger’s seat. Quickly, she stuck her hand into the space between the two, desperately searching for her phone. Aware that the clock was ticking, that the light would turn green at any moment, that if she took a second too long she would hold up the line of cars behind her, she unbuckled her seat belt, leaned over and poked her head under the passenger’s seat. It took no longer than two seconds for her to emerge with her phone in hand, only to realize that the light had already turned green. Damn! The people behind her must be pissed. They must think she’s an idiot, or worse, a lousy, selfish person. She had to show them that they were wrong, that she was not who they thought she was. She was better than that. So she pressed the gas and tore through the intersection.   She weaved in and out of traffic, making it to the next light in record time. Yeah. They understood. They would forgive her the hesitation. It was an easy mistake-that pause when the light turned green. They knew. We all get distracted. They would forgive her.

But now she had to deal with the selfish asshole in front of her who, unlike Gretchen, didn’t care if she held anyone up. She didn’t care that Gretchen was in a hurry. It seemed that The Bob’s sole purpose was to slow her down. She just drifted along, and all caught in her wake were at her mercy. Damn these two-lane roads. Traffic flowed from the opposite direction. There was no opportunity to pass. Damn! Gretchen’s felt her chest tighten. Her breathing became shallow. Should she lay on the horn? Flash her lights? No. She wouldn’t do that. She didn’t want to call attention to herself. She would just drive as closely to The Bob’s car as possible, being careful not to tap its bumper. But she just needed to make sure there were no cops around. The last thing she needed was to get pulled over for tailgating. That would slow her down. More importantly, it would be embarrassing. What if someone she knew drove by and spotted her pulled over on the side of the road while an officer wrote her a ticket? What if someone from her daughter’s school saw her? No. That wouldn’t do. She needed to be extremely cautious.

Gretchen moved her car as close to The Bob’s bumper as possible, trying to push her along, to get her to, at a bare minimum, reach the speed limit. Of course, her attempts were futile. The Bob just ambled on, erratically slowing down, speeding up ever so slightly and braking well before there was a need. If only Gretchen could just push the car in front of her, attach it to the front of her car like a snow plow and force the fucking driver to move.

Gretchen wondered if The Bob was even aware that she was on her tail. As far as she could tell, The Bob never even looked in the rearview mirror-not once. She just continued driving three miles below the speed limit, periodically speeding up only to return to three below within a few seconds, until, of course, she approached a traffic light. Then, long before there was ever a need, she began breaking, bringing her speed down to an unbearably slow rate before coming to a complete stop for the light that had just turned yellow. Sitting behind this woman, coming to a dead stop, at a yellow light when there was clearly more than enough time for both cars to make it through before the light turned red was too much. Gretchen cursed; her heart beat a savage rhythm. After being forced to sit idly at a yellow light when she had someplace to get to, she had reached her limit. What she really wanted to was get out of her car and punch the bitch. That’s what she wanted to do. Instead, however, she laid on the horn. She laid on hard and long and angry. Only then did The Bob look up, but just for a moment, as if to check what the sound was simply out of curiosity.

Finally, the light turned green. Of course The Bob sat for about two long seconds before accelerating. Moving slowly down the road, Gretchen searched for opportunities to pass, points where the solid yellow line broke up, indicating that it was safe to move into the oncoming lane. Of course, when those moments arose, there were always cars flowing from the opposite direction, making passing impossible.

Fearing she would be late, Gretchen felt a nervous energy surge through her. Her body began to tingle with the mix of anxiety, anger and frustration. She needed to pass this person. She needed to move forward. She felt like those poor bastards who, after swimming for hours in the frigid waters of the English Channel, were forced to quit because they kept getting pushed back by the tide.   Why should Gretchen be made to feel this way? She left her house on time. In fact, she left early. She had someplace to be. Being trapped behind this person was unfair.

Finally, Gretchen noticed that, up ahead, her side of the road opened into two lanes. Here was her opportunity. Granted, the sign indicated that the right lane was for right turns only. No matter. She was going to do it. She was going to risk getting caught by a cop. She was going to risk looking like a maniac in front of everyone who was about to witness her maneuver. Since you could turn right on red, she was even going to risk holding up the cars that lined up behind her. She didn’t care. This was war, and she had to view anyone stuck behind her as collateral damage. Of course, the irony of holding people up didn’t escape Gretchen; she just had to push that thought aside.

Slowly, The Bob and Gretchen moved towards the next set of traffic lights. As they approached, Gretchen watched the light turn yellow then red. It no longer mattered. Soon she would extricate herself from this unbearable situation. This was it. The Bob came to a complete stop. Gretchen pulled to the right and moved up beside her. Don’t look at her. Don’t worry if she looks at you. Of course, another car drove up behind Gretchen. Her stomach turned. She hated holding the person up. She hoped that traffic would come through the intersecting street, rendering the right on red option pointless. No one came though, and the driver of the car behind hers honked his horn. Don’t look at him. Focus. Once the light turned green, Gretchen would have to move fast. Finally it did. Gretchen floored the gas pedal, driving past the light and pulling in front of The Bob. Gretchen felt a sense of euphoria. She likened it to the feeling an animal must have when it escapes from a trapper’s cage.

She looked ahead. Traffic seemed relatively clear. She looked in her rearview mirror. There, far in the distance, was The Bob in her little blue car, moving slowly down the road. Fuck her.

Finally, Gretchen reached her destination. She found a place in the school parking lot. Excellent. 2:48. She still had seven minutes before she had to walk up to the door of the school to collect her daughter at dismissal. Gretchen felt tired, drained from the drive to the school. She pulled out her phone to check her messages. As she was reading, Gretchen sensed someone pull into the space to the right of hers. From the corner of her eye she could make out that it was a blue car. Shit. No.

Yes. Yes it was. It was The Bob. Gretchen commanded herself not to, under any circumstances, make eye contact with the woman. At precisely 2:55 Gretchen, not wanting to be late to retrieve her daughter, got out of her car.   The Bob, of course, seemed in no hurry. As Gretchen closed her door, however, The Bob emerged from her car. Don’t look at her. Don’t look up. Then Gretchen heard the sound of another parent call to her from the direction of The Bob’s car. Shit. Could she just ignore the person, pretend like she didn’t hear her? No. The woman was so loud, Gretchen had to have heard her. Again, the woman called out, “Hi Gretchen! I haven’t seen you in a while. I guess you always make it here ahead of me.” As Gretchen raised her head to respond, The Bob caught her eye. It happened. They made eye contact. Gretchen felt the familiar and uncomfortable hot and tingly sensation throughout her body. Her face became tight and somewhat twitchy and then, not having enough time to attend to all her racing thoughts, she managed a stiff grin. The Bob, the imperturbable Bob, placidly grinned back. Gretchen chirped back to the woman four cars down, “Oh, I rush in, grab my daughter and rush out.” Then they all made their way to the school doors. The Bob, moving slowly, calmly. Gretchen, scurrying quickly, nervously. She had someplace to be. She had to get there. She had to move. She had to move. She just had to move.