I received my assignment, and am convinced that there has been a terrible error: I have been placed as a student in the Mrs. Brown's third grade class in room I-241, with recess at 12:00 every day. This makes little to no sense to me. Recess times should be varied. Also, I am 36 years old.
In fact, I assumed I was going to be assigned the job of playground supervisor. I had passed all the standard certifications, and I thought that my interview with Mr. Ptahil, the school board chairman, had gone very well. There are clerical errors, I'm aware of that. Still, I think this may be deliberate subterfuge. I saw Suzy Wilkinson get my job, the job I was assured of, and she seemed quite pleased. Strangely pleased. Pleased like the villain in a James Bond movie. Maybe I'm imagining it. Still.
Now, every day at noon, I have to play. This is not something I'm good at. I'm very well equipped to supervise, to prevent or derail fights, and to suggest games that are inclusive and growthful. I am not, however, well equipped for the actual playing.
Also, since I've been on the playground, politics have become extremely important. For example, walking home yesterday with my friends, Chris Epithumia and Bryan McFadden, I was put into an extremely uncomfortable position: Chris shouted “faggot” at Bryan just as Bryan’s mother was opening the door. I ducked behind a stone wall. What could I do? It is important that Chris be my friend, but I rather like Bryan. Plus, what would Bryan's mother think of my incorrectly recorded age?
Chris’s mother is usually too wasted to object to my obviously advanced years. While she sleeps in the kitchen we sneak up to her bedroom and look through Chris’ father’s collection of Penthouse magazines. I like the cartoons in the back. So does Chris.
Yesterday I was probably the best player in the game of “army,” wounding many men with my wooden gun.
I have asked Suzy Wilkinson, who has my job, playground attendant, whether or not she might consider the possibility that a mistake has been made which perhaps is not even entirely in her favor. She accused me of bad faith, of believing in outdated higher powers. She said that we were not communicating in terms of an I–thou relationship. She said that the trace of difference that supports, as a fine thread, the heady edifice of our identities, was always already split, that my distinctions rested on a power relationship whose asymmetry was perpetuated, asymmetrically, by all participants. She said that the game of doubting presupposed certainty. Suzy is very mature, but she is clearly no more than 9 years old. Plus, when I threw the ball and it skidded over home plate she yelled “We need a pitcher, not a belly-itcher." She is my enemy.
I tried to get in touch with Mr. Ptahil, the school board chairman, to find out if my assignment could be changed, but as it turns out I am no longer listed as “assigned” in the adult sense. I couldn't even speak to Mr. Ptahil, as his secretary wouldn't put me through, but she assured me that 3rd graders were not allowed to be playground supervisors. It took me a moment to realize she was talking about me. I am dreading long division.
The way I figure it, I may be stuck here a while, and so I have been sucking up to Chris Epithumia, who I think is really cool. He by no means “runs the playground.” Nobody really does that—playground relationships are not so hierarchical, despite what all the novels-for-children would indicate. But Chris clearly knows his way around and is not bullied by very many people. In fact, he knows some of the biggest bullies quite well—now that I think about it, this may explain why he hangs around me even though I cannot figure out how to get my blue jeans to fade like the other kids’. When I was a kid we wore faded jeans too, but I am sure they did not look like these jeans now.
Chris and I snuck into an abandoned building and he produced a pack of cigarettes from his pocket without flourish or pride, and then offered me one and lit one up himself. I was impressed by his lack of finesse, his lack of magicianly moves, his straightforward here’s-your-cigarette-here’s-mine way of things. I think this is central to his playground fluidity, his go-anywhere ability. He does not play cool. He is cool.
In fact, he does not seem to play at all. Actually, this can be a drag when its time for a game of “army” or “Pokemon,” but does not deter him from kickball.
Suzy said that Chris lacks a teleological sense of his ethical self, that he pragmatically founders on a sea of possibility by refusing to make a leap of faith, that in spite of an inherent decentralization of all concepts one must stake a claim to the creation of a self, even if only as part of a never ending chain of deconstructive possibilities that recur but do not precisely replicate themselves. I think Suzy is a geek.
Today Chris showed me a watch he had stolen, a Pokemon watch actually, and I didn’t know what to say. I thought that he thought that Pokemon was for faggots. Then he laid the watch on a rock and smashed it with another rock and laughed and laughed and finally went “whooo,” catching his breath from all that laughter. I love Chris and he doesn’t know it.
I am always hungry now. I must subsist on the gloopy offerings from the school lunchroom, which means I eat only one child-sized meal a day. Also, since I'm not being paid, I have had to give up my apartment. I live in the small wooded area behind the playground, although everyday I walk away from school as though I were going home. I tried to call Mr. Ptahil again, but I didn't have any change for the payphone. I asked the clerk at the 7-11 if I could use his phone, and he just yelled “get out, you stupid kid,” at me. It made me want to go to Chris’s house.
Chris and I and another kid named Chris went into the woods behind the playground to smoke cigarettes, which Chris produced in the same manner. I’m not sure where he gets them but they are always fresh. Other Chris whispered something to Chris and then they both stared at me with exaggerated wide-open eyes until they burst out laughing. I laughed too but I knew there was some joke on me. Nonetheless, while urinating I have noticed that my penis is tremendously larger than those of the other boys.
On the way back to the playground other-Chris tripped me and I fell in the mud. I beat him bloody.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between knowing someone very well and merely being acquainted. Chris knows this distinction and has no trouble with it but I occasionally treat as close friends those whom I have only known distantly, accidentally believing that we share some real connection merely because I see that they are friendly with someone whom I do know well, or they are in the same play-group as me. In this way I have embarrassed myself thoroughly on a number of occasions, even believing that one of the girls was my girlfriend. Actually, I have never had a girlfriend and probably wasn’t acting appropriately for that role anyway. In fact, I was mean and insulting to her and she told me off. “Tommy Goodman,” she said “I don’t even know you!" I was mortified, afraid to go back into the center of the playground. I sat in the corner of the fence and hugged my knees while (I assume) other kids stared or laughed at me. Chris and I have not spoken since I beat up other-Chris.
Kids and adults are either very, very different or they are not so different, of this I am sure, although Suzy disagrees, of course.
I hang around Bryan McFadden a lot now though we don’t actually talk much, we just walk around and the other kids sometimes yell “McFaggot” at him or us. I miss Chris, he was really cool. Sometimes Bryan writes me stupid notes about what great friends we are and how cool we two really are but mostly we are alone, except for this kid named Chris, not Chris Epithumia and not the Chris I beat up, this Chris’s father owns a hobby shop. He has all of the Pokemon cards, even the really rare one of super-Pikachu. Bryan only likes this Chris because of his dad. The other kids hate this Chris, hobby-shop-dad-Chris, even more than they hate Bryan. Today Suzy got married to a forty year old insurance salesman from Des Moines and a letter of mine to Mr. Ptahil was returned unopened.
I asked Suzy what married life was like and she said it was like two souls residing in one body, and I didn’t correct her. Then she said that the dominant paradigm of marriage qua marriage was anti-progressive, but the actual experience embodied a liberating spirituality that cut through simple materialisms without recourse to a dialectic; that is, it was an immediacy in and of itself. I believe Suzy intentionally switched assignments with me and I am trying to build up her trust with an eye toward acquiring proof of this suspicion. For an Aristotelian, Suzy is rather suspectable, actually.
A new kid named Phillipe came to school and he was beaten up by other-Chris and then he found out that I had beat up other-Chris and came to find me and so I have to wonder, is he cool or is he a faggot? But then I remember that it’s just me and Bryan and hobby-shop-dad-Chris and we can probably use someone else and actually I feel a lot closer to these kids than I did to any of Chris Epithumia’s friends although I still miss Chris. Sometimes I see him looking at me like “what up?” and sometimes he looks at me like a traitor. If I were still his friend would he still be friends with other-Chris, who I beat up?
It turns out that Phillipe might be really cool because he took me and hobby-shop-dad-Chris into the woods behind the playground and not only did he have cigarettes (which, unfortunately, he produced with a proud flip of his wrist) but he showed us his actual tattoo, not the bubble gum kind, and it was of a spider. I’m not sure how to make use of this. If I am careful Phillipe’s tattoo could get me in good with the cool kids again, if not we will lose Phillipe and he will think that we are faggots. I am fully prepared to betray Bryan and hobby-shop-dad-Chris.
Suzy, who I don’t think is really so bad, said that it’s all right to betray your friends if the telos inherent in your particular psyche is such that this tactic would advance you toward it without damaging its nature as end-in-itself. Of course, this flies in the face of the categorical imperative but I think that Suzy would be happy to bypass Kant and also that she may be something of a mystic and even an obscurantist. Anyway, these comments finally made it perfectly clear to me that she switched positions with me on purpose.
I must brook a meeting with Chris Epithumia, bringing only Phillipe and his spider tattoo.
I ask Phillipe to go downtown with me and of course Bryan and hobby-shop-dad-Chris have to tag along. When we get to the smelly, abandoned underground parking lot I challenge everyone to go in with me. As we go deeper and deeper underground it becomes almost totally dark. Hobby-shop-dad Chris is scared, and he wants to leave. "Go ahead," I tell him, indicating that he's a faggot. He looks mad but he runs away. We go deeper and we come to an alcove that exists only in outline, its contents completely obscured by darkness. I dare Bryan to put his hand into it but he just keeps saying “c’mon, c’mon, let’s get out of here, c’mon" I really thought this would get rid of him. He's a fraidy-cat, usually, but it’s not working, he just keeps saying “c’mon, c’mon” and finally I say “McFaggot” and I’m sticking my hand into the darkness and repeating “McFaggot! McFaggot! McFaggot!” and he kicks me and runs away. I laugh and make to slap Phillipe’s hand and he doesn’t understand at first but I show him how and he’s confused but we go through the dark alcove and there’s a fire door to an outside staircase and we go up to where I know Chris Epithumia, cool Chris, is, and he’s there, smoking a cigarette on the hood of a car. “Chris, Chris” I yell, totally geeky, and he hides the cigarette and scowls at me, but it doesn’t matter I’m still totally excited and I pull up Phillipe’s sleeve and there’s the spider. Chris’ mouth hangs open and his eyes pop out and he flips out, like it’s the coolest thing he’s ever seen, and I wonder Am I his friend again? and he slaps my hand. The three of us go and smoke cigarettes and hang out in abandoned buildings and at construction sites all day and I am as happy as I have ever been.
The next day when I see Suzy she is crying and a man in a suit is standing over her, sternly holding her arm. It is Mr. Ptahil. He has finally realized that there has been a mistake. He points at me and beckons me over and looks really mean and I look at Chris, Chris Epithumia, cool Chris with cigarettes and no Pokemon-bullshit and he looks at me like nothing, totally cool or maybe just having no idea what this means and I start to cry, and Chris, very gently, kisses my cheek and holds my hand and crying I yell “Suzy, you are such a fucking geek, such a fucking geek.”
James DiGiovanna is the award winning film reviewer for the Tucson Weekly, co-writer and co-director of the award winning feature film A Forked World, and he makes pictures of robots. You can find his robots at spoonbot.com.