If I sit perfectly still and squint a little, I can venture back in time, through the dusty drapes of my memory to the early days of childhood. As the years contract and slide behind me, I feel myself shrinking, my arms and legs growing thinner, my mind releasing its vast collection of clutter.
After the final barrier yields and drops away, I break out into an open area where the whole world is down here, flat and cool, and where the ceiling might as well be the sky. It’s clear and quiet. My short pants are corduroy, held up by suspenders. I am three years old. A smooth, white, metallic box rests on the linoleum floor. I kneel in front of it and begin to turn the thin crank on its right side. The song Pop Goes the Weasel matches the speed of the crank, sounding stifled and clunky, as if I’m listening to it from the next room, with my ear pressed to the wall. After fifteen seconds of tentative turning, the lid on the box releases and a demonic toy clown flies from its depths, swaying and squeaking and scaring the life out of me.
As much as I hate this experience, I can’t stop. Once my heart resumes a normal pace, I push down on the top of the clown’s head, close the lid, and repeat the ritual. Again, and again.
Most likely, my mother has sent me away from her private conversation and told me to go play with the jack-in-the-box. But that’s never how it feels. It seems more like the clown is the one who’s playing, and is letting me participate only because it needs air, but can’t reach the crank from inside its container. Adding to my anxiety is the fact that his emergence never becomes predictable. Rather, he leaps up at different points in the song, as if to prevent me from adjusting to a pattern and preparing for the fright. I don’t like the clown’s face, especially his smile and the texture of the plastic, and am compelled to seal him under the lid. But once hidden, he sends an irresistible signal to my brain, and I again set him free.
The jack-in-the-box is my introduction to pointless diversions that appear to be designed for nothing more than pure annoyance and frustration. A few years later, I am playing board games that require the roll of dice, or the careful flick of a spinning arrow. In the most memorable example, the goal is to disperse four colored tokens from the safety of my home area, launching them out into traffic around a long, senseless loop and back again. After my turn, one of the other players inevitably lands on the same space. My piece is kicked out and I have to start over. I don’t understand. The space has plenty of room for both tokens. Besides, I was there first, so why am I the one who has to leave? Just as the jack-in-the-box was supposed to help develop valuable hand-eye coordination, this one has been marketed, I’m sure, as a way to learn strategy, patience, and perseverance. The only thing I’m learning, though, is that my brothers and cousins are out to get me, and that they’re all stupid jerks. Whenever they show up, someone pulls out the game, or some variation, and I’m once more subjected to the humiliation of being returned, repeatedly, to the very spot where I began.
This game will soon be replaced by more complicated alternatives, each riddled with mysterious rules that I try but fail to comprehend. Out of all the games I despise, my favorite is one called Life. It allows me to move a small car around a board that includes bridges, banked hills, and a built-in spinner. I’m so distracted by these novelties that I sometimes fail to notice how pathetic I am at actually playing the game. I never win, but I don’t care. At least I’m not being sent back to the beginning every time I start to make some progress. Most intriguing is this idea that I get to decide things for my family. And I get to drive. The car has six holes, meant to accommodate plastic pegs that represent me, my wife, and our children. The rule book for Life is also where I first come across the word spouse. Much later, in my real life, I will be momentarily startled when I meet a man who has a spouse, and her name is Peg.
* * * * *
The worst game of all is Monopoly. Right from the beginning, I am thrown off balance by the choice of tokens, forced to decide if I want to be a dog, an iron, a boot, a thimble, a purse, or a hat. No matter which I choose, someone makes fun of me.
“You want to be an iron?”
No. I don’t want to be any of them, but they all picked theirs before I had a chance, and the iron is the only one left. I really just want to watch cartoons. But as with the jack-in-the-box, I’ve been somehow coerced into participating in this grueling ordeal. I march around the board, taking two hundred dollars from the banker and almost immediately forking it over to someone else because I’ve landed on a property where he’s built a string of hotels. Who told him to put all those hotels there? Not me. I’m just passing through, not spending the night. I don’t even know where I’m going. There’s no end in sight, and when I look ahead, I see only an endless path of financial obligation.
The cash continues to vanish. I land on Water Works, which is just a picture of a faucet that, for some unknown reason, turns into another debt. I draw a card and am told to pay a luxury tax on a diamond ring. I don’t remember buying a diamond ring. I’m an iron. What would I even do with a ring? I’m sent to jail without explanation or legal representation. I land on a railroad and I’m out a huge wad of cash. Then I owe money to a guy named Marvin Gardens. Suddenly, I don’t have a white dollar bill to my name, and I’m confronted with yet another new word: bankrupt.
* * * * *
When the adults invite me to join their games, the story is pretty much the same. We play Crazy Eights, an activity with rules so complex that I’m sure the other players are inventing them as we go along. We play bingo, but I can’t keep up, and while I’m searching for B-12 or G-47, the caller is already three numbers ahead. We play gin rummy, and I show my hand to my father, who shakes his head and advises me to pick another card.
As my aunt scoops up her latest pile of winning chips, I think of the jack-in-the-box, and how harmless and lovable he really was. I wonder where he is now, and if there’s a small, nervous child around who occasionally pops open the lid for him. I miss that little clown, and his kind face. I hope he’s still smiling.