My exercise from day two. The assignment was to create a scene that incorporated a flashback of some sort.
People don’t like seeing a living statue walking through the streets. They laugh, shout wise cracks, and point unabashedly. It was almost enough to keep Jeff from venturing out in his grey face paint and toga costume. On the way to the park, he was a freak – some lonesome guy with a weird habit of dressing up like a Roman. He had taken the subway to the 8th Street Station, but all the pointing and laughing made him self-conscious enough that he decided to head for the less populous Washington Square rather than the Liberty Bell. There, he could practice his breathing exercises and try out the self-validation techniques he’d recently read about.
But he also knew a little immobility would help. When you stop moving, the ridicule ends. People still look at you, but they’re looking at something different, not at the DSL installation guy with Social Anxiety Disorder. You become a virtual two-way mirror, safe in your secret room.
He chose a bench near the Walnut Street entrance, struck a thinker pose, and focused on his breath. Not two minutes into his act, a boy entered his peripheral vision. The kid was combing the park for something, crouching occasionally to pick up one of his finds. They were stones, Jeff soon found out – smooth, round stones. The boy approached and set his treasure on the bench. “Hey, you wanna play a game?” he said.
Jeff stifled a sudden urge to cough. Clearly, the kid didn’t know the unwritten code. You don’t talk to living statues. Everyone abided by the rules. Jeff depended on them.
The kid looked to be in middle school – certainly old enough to know better. But he didn’t wait for Jeff’s reply. “When it’s your turn, you can take any number of stones away from any one row. But you can only take from one row at a time.” He began arranging the stones in three rows. “The object is to leave your opponent with the last stone. Ready?”
Jeff knew this game. He’d played it with the children in Changsha on his way back from the wet market every day. He glanced sideways to confirm. One row of three, one row of four, and one row of five. Yep. Same game. There was a secret to it, a sort of algorithm that would guarantee victory as long as you didn’t go first. He waited for the boy to make a move, then, remaining statue still, he reached a gray arm toward the stones and removed one.
The kid stroked his chin like an old chess player before removing his stone. Jeff knew the winning combinations. Leave your opponent with a 1-1-1 or a 2-2 and you couldn’t lose. He’d taught the Chinese kids by beating them every day. He didn’t believe in letting them win. The lesson was stronger when they figured it out themselves.
How bold he’d been in China, striking up conversations with shop owners and neighbors. He’d even paused once in the middle of a busy street, turning his head skyward as bikes and buses passed him by. The pungent smells of urine and freshly-killed poultry mingled with the car exhaust and newly-poured concrete. And under the heat of a dirty sun, all his fear had evaporated. He was a foreigner; he was forgiven his foolishness and his trespasses. They’d parted around him like an island in a river.
And here, on this park bench, some odd middle school boy was inhabiting that same world.
Jeff envied him.
Even as he won each new game, he envied him.
“Wow,” the boy said, finally looking Jeff in the face, “you’re pretty good at this game. For a statue.” And then he gathered his stones and walked off.
Jeff broke form at last, yelling after him, “What’s your name?”
The boy turned around and said, “Jeff.” Then he walked on, leaving a statue frozen and waving goodbye.