I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23
It seems everybody plays Arms these days.
Not that everybody should.
I once played Arms with a guy named Tommy Cassanova who was way better than me. He’d stolen a girl of mine back when we were in high school and they walked around with hickeys and had sex all the time so I hated him pretty badly back then. Her name was Allison Swanner and she was flat covered in freckles. Anyway, Tommy went on to play football at some big Southern college and just dumped this girl like she was nothing, like she was already used up, and it really got to me. I let it stew for a while, I’m guessing maybe ten or fifteen years, and then I challenged Tommy Cassanova to a game of Arms.
I followed all the rules.
I looked him up on the internet and went to his house wearing my nicest suit. I said we had a score to settle on account of the pain he’d caused me back when I had pimples and that the only way to solve it was to play an official game of Arms. He said, “Okay.” I don’t think he had a clue as to who I was, nor do I think he really remembered Allison Swanner, so I probably should have known right then he was good.
Just to say yes to a game of Arms all willy-nilly? Who does that? Still, I’d been planning my strategy for years at that point, so I felt pretty confident. I told Tommy to meet me at high noon at my house the next day, a place I’d basically turned into a Me-versus-Tommy-Cassanova Arms court. When he got there, I brought him into the living room and asked him if he wanted a beer. He said, “You bet,” just like I thought he would, so I went and got it for him.
When I got back, he was acting all casual like he wasn’t worried about anything so I said, “Hey, tough guy, why don’t you stand over here in this spot?” where I had put a tiny little x on the floor. He did this without question, and I thought this might be the easiest game of Arms ever. I patted him on the shoulder and walked over to another x on the floor, on the other side of the room, where I started into my speech about how a person’s mind and heart are like an elephant’s mind and heart and how big athletic people that go around bullying folks and stealing their girls need to get themselves ready for some serious payback.
While I did this, unbeknownst to him, I pressed my foot on a pedal I’d installed in the floor that in turn cut a long piece of string that I’d secretly run underneath the floorboards and up into the walls where it looped over a nail and held up a two-pound steel ball. Once the string was cut, the steel ball fell onto an old Lionel train track I’d set up like a ramp between the walls and rolled down into a hole that went into the basement where it fell right on top of a big metal scale (The Scale of Justice, I liked to call it) which got weighed down by the ball and consequently lit three long matches that I’d taped to its sides. These matches then lit three vanilla candles sitting underneath three pieces of pretty decent string and started burning them.
Tommy drank his beer while all this was happening and said, “Well, make your move.” I smiled back at him and said, “Maybe I already have,” and he asked me, “Have you ever even played this before?”
That’s when I smelled the vanilla coming up through the floorboards and prepared myself for the sight of his big bloody death in my face.
See, those three candles were about to burn through the three pieces of string that each traveled up through a pulley and then wrapped around three separate copies of Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a big and heavy book, Crime and Punishment, perfect to use as a counter weight, and ripe with what I thought at the time was some pretty metaphorical rightitude. So when these strings finally broke, the books fell hard and at the same time pulled down on the three pieces of wire I’d tied around them which then led up to the triggers of three shotguns I’d hidden in various angles in my living room, all facing the exact spot Tommy Cassanova was standing on.
I’d always imagined it to be my greatest victory, this moment, but when I pulled out my camera to capture it, all I heard were the clicks of three shotgun triggers with no buckshot buzzing afterward. And the real irony was that I’d also connected my foot pedal to start a timer so that exactly one and three quarter minutes after I’d set things in motion, a trap door in the ceiling above Tommy’s head would open and drop three dozen daisies on what I thought would surely be his dead and bullet-riddled body. So when all those daisies fell and he was still alive, I dropped my camera and was like, shit.
Tommy finished off his beer like this was no big deal and crushed the can against his chest. Then he leaned over and brushed some daisies off my end table and set the flattened beer can down all gentle and polite. He reached into his pocket and pulled out three shotgun shells. “I found these when you were off getting me that beer,” he said. “So, I guess it’s my turn now?”
“I guess so,” I said.
Some people are just better at Arms than others.
Some people don’t over-think it, you know? Tommy was that kind of player.
So he began.
He walked over and grabbed me by the throat, lifted me off the ground, and rammed his fist into my testicles enough times for me to lose count. Then he slung me to the ground, knelt on my face, and slammed his pinky finger far enough into my ear to burst the drum, sending hot fluid dripping in through my sinuses. After this he took down his pants and displayed his considerable member. It was his idea that this particular piece of his anatomy should be the last thing that I ever saw clearly in life and so he proceeded to crush my eye sockets with the camera. Then he called 911 and left me concussed on my own living room floor.
Like I said, he was good.
But this story isn’t about him. This is about the game of Arms, in general, and how it’s changed since Tommy and I had our go.
Let me tell you.
Just last week, when I finally woke up from my coma, I found out that several years have passed since me and Tommy, and that Arms is way more popular now. It’s like everybody plays it all the time and so some of the rules have gotten out of whack. People do stuff like stash snakes in random vending machines, crash cars into lobbies, strap bombs under ice cream trucks, things like that. I’ve never seen any of this, of course. Nowadays I can only see vague shapes and shadows out of these thick prescription glasses they gave me on account of my eyes. But the nurses all tell me to be careful out there, because the game has really caught on.
Despite that, when I get my release from the hospital, it feels good to be back on the street. I make my way up the first blurry looking road that I come to and finally get a sense of where I am from the smell. It’s like a mixture of bread and hot sugar and there’s this place called Tony’s Donuts still in business. The owner apparently recognizes me from my pre-coma years and leads me to a nice, comfy booth. “You look like shit,” he tells me, and I say, “Do I?” and he pats me on the back and gets me some food.
After I eat, I leave Tony’s Donuts and start walking. People are running through the streets all around me. Out of my one good ear I hear what sounds like explosions, but I can’t be sure. A couple of hours go by and I think I’ve finally found my old house because I pick up the smell of vanilla, just like I did when I played Tommy Cassanova at Arms. It turns out I’ve just walked in a circle, though, and am now back at Tony’s Donuts where he is cooking up some crullers with icing. He leads me back to the booth I sat in before, slides me a plate, and says, “I could get used to you being blind,” and we both laugh.
Tony’s an honest guy. I like him.
Maybe if I’d have been honest with Tommy Cassanova, I figure, I wouldn’t be in this spot I’m in now. If I would have just been upfront with him, instead of rigging all those secret devices, instead of giving him a beer and guiding him to the spot I wanted him, maybe things would have been different. If I would have just said, look Tommy, I don’t like you and I want to play Arms, then maybe I would have stood a chance.
Or maybe not.
Maybe Arms just isn’t the game for me.
You’ve got to be smart and not clever, I figure. So I just eat my hot cruller and try to remember how to get back to my house from here. I see shadows hurry past the shop windows. I feel hot icing drip down on my chin.
Damn, these things are good.
I had forgotten.
M.O. Walsh was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Epoch, and Greensboro Review. His first book is the short story collection The Prospect of Magic (Livingston Press, 2010). He currently teaches in the Creative Writing Workshop at The University of New Orleans.1