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art by Melissa Mead

Losses: A Game

M.O. Walsh is a writer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  His first book, the story collection The Prospect of Magic, won the 2009 Tartt's First Fiction Prize and is now available in hardback and paper. His stories have appeared in Oxford American, American Short Fiction, and Epoch, and have been anthologized in Best New American Voices and Bar Stories. He currently teaches at LSU with his wife Sarah, daughter Magnolia, dog Gus, and is happy. He can be reached at www.mowalsh.com or on Facebook.
The game of Losses is played by yourself.
Nearly every town has a court.
If the sky is clear, you can probably find one just by looking up, where they often hang suspended from slow moving gaming satellites in our stratosphere. Or, if it is overcast, you might only need to look for a guy holding a rope down on Earth, offering it to passersby, as if the vendor of some colossal balloon. In the town square. Out in a field. Trust me, you can find a game if you want one. And the ropes these men hold head up through the clouds to a playing surface that changes dimensions according to the skill level of the player. For most it is the size of a basketball court, maybe for some a soccer field.
Inexplicable, yes. But this is the appeal of Losses.
It is a popular game.
So, you pay your two dollars to the man on the ground and climb up the rope off the planet. This isn’t the test. This isn’t the challenge. The rope’s got sure footholds and grabbing pegs so that just about anyone can make it. Still, it takes some time. There’s some danger. You’ve got to be at least twenty-one to play, too, which make sense, because Losses is not a game for children. And this rope eventually leads you up through the blustery troposphere and into the thin stratosphere and then finally right through a hole at the center of an empty Losses court, where you’re given as much time as you need to catch your breath.
Then, when you’re ready, you set your feet and start thinking.
Game on.
There’s no use trying to cheat.
Any positive thoughts you might have in this place will set off buzzers and shrink the court’s surface until you’re forced right back down the long rope you came up on. Game over. Who’s next?
So, you might as well get your money’s worth and play right.
At Losses, most people start with the biggies;
Fathers and mothers. Childhood cats and dogs. A dead parakeet.
And, as it turns out, when you think hard upon lost things in the stratosphere, they appear before you in the flesh they once lived in. In their plastic. In their steel. As soon as you think of them, their effigies grow life-sized on the playing surface before you, usually starting over at the edge of the court. Your mother first, perhaps, in the way best befitting your conjure. Wrapped in some comfortable robe. Looking out through a kitchen window. A wooden spoon in her hand. Your father, then, all by himself on the far baseline; like you wish you didn’t recall him but do. Vacant atop a hospital mattress. Plastic flowers on the nightstand. The things he never said.
These two take up the first available spots on your court.
Then comes your beloved family dog at the foul line, trying to run to you with its displaced hips, the bones forever swung to the side by a car that doesn’t materialize in this game. Your long lost cat, next, appearing stiff in the grass like you found her. The parakeet, last, perched headless after that same cat found him. This is good.
All the basics are now assembled, like kickoff.
Still plenty of room left.
As you can imagine, there are many questions as to the actual science of Losses.
Some argue it’s the thin air up there that does it to people, the lack of Oxygen simply softening up the mind a good bit. Boxing it around like some sluggish foe.
But I think these are the folks who’ve never played.
Because the ones who have say it’s more than that.
They say it’s a mistake to write off this miracle, the appearance of sturdy figures in the stratosphere, as if they could be the result of some drug purchased off the street. Like some pill doled out by a thug, folded up in a used cigarette pack. No.
The truth, these people claim, is much simpler:
They say we’ve merely been living like dolts down here all these centuries, down here at ground level, because there’s magic up there in the strat.
And why couldn’t there be? they ask. Why not a place where you can conjure your Losses? Why not a way to cobble up souls from beyond? People always say that we only use a small percentage of our brains. Perhaps this is the missing continent? Or, if not that, just look to the Bible. It talks about Ascendancy, does it not? Maybe this is the place the dead stop when they leave us? Maybe all of God’s heaven sits underneath the Earth’s shell?
Maybe.
But even this seems the talk of romantics.
Because, as people continue to build up their court in Losses, as they allow the game to progress, they inevitably stack up the soulless.
For example:
A lost promotion at work might sprout at the top of the key. The rows of cubicles in that office, the gurgling water cooler, the beige carpet; they may all rise tangibly before you. Even the blinking yellow bulbs of that place might swing in the sky overhead. A passing secretary. A file cabinet. They each take up their space on the surface. They make you feel a little crammed in.
This is small potatoes.
Add to it the now rising scene at midcourt. A disco ball. A wooden floor. The time you abandoned a school dance to booze with your friends in a parking lot, leaving a girl named Lindy left to look for you in the crowd. What a miss. What a loss. And this is surely not the biggest but, still, it blooms in your head regardless and so now it stands there on your court. Her blonde hair freshly cut. A pink corsage on her dress.
She smells of her mother’s perfume.
And Lindy must quickly make room for old furniture, suddenly crashing to the court from above. Sofas. End tables. Things lost to you in some act of God.
A flood. A strike of lightning.
Even the faultless items stack before you in this place, for they are Losses all the same.
A sunken boat. A hill of ashes.
A wedding ring.
So, you back toward the edge of the court. You try to make room.
And it is here you think of money. You always do.
The frivolous purchases. Your gambles big and small.
And when the grand total of these Losses hit you, bills begin to paper the floor. Ones and twenties roll out as if tongues. They carpet the scene like flora, and push a soft breeze at your ankles. Then, on the top of this, inching ever closer to you on the court, the appearance of all that could have been bought with that money: Roses. Airline tickets. Lost opportunities.
The places you could have been.
So, all of Venice rises up where the hoop should be.
Its canals spill like snakes on the floor.
Beside you now, a cherry red gondola. In it, a person you once loved.
Ancient wet stones. Tender wet eyes.
The moon.
If you look down now you will see the open sky beneath your heels at the baseline, because this is the end of the court. This is fourth quarter.
At this point in the game, no matter who you are, no matter how often you’ve played, you will begin to think only of yourself; of your safety standing there at the edge, of your death, and of your too short and too littered life. You can soon think of nothing else but yourself in the stratosphere and, as such, you begin to populate the court with your clones.
Inevitable. Unavoidable.
The game of Losses ends like this.
You watch yourself being born. Over and over again. And all of these separate visions of you, appearing at different times of your life, in every attitude you can remember, are born only to try and escape this cluttered place you’ve reset them.
Adults. Children. Teenagers.
A man with two dollars in his hand.
They spill from you in this place. They climb into this world and they run.
You spend the rest of the game watching your clones crawl in squads over lost furniture, over lost lovers, over constantly fondled mistakes. You hear them call out to one another, “Did we do this?” and search their own past for some type of escape.
They find none. Nor do you.
This is Losses, after all.
That hole at midcourt is long covered.
The rope you came up on, a history.
And so you fall.
Not to worry.
Most people who fall out of Losses will be caught by the crowd that’s been watching. Half of them are happy to help you, of course, to tell you how amazed they are that you lasted so long. What good footwork they saw from below. The other half are less forgiving, however, still angry that you cut in line in front of them earlier, so mad that you started the game without asking them. Without considering them. Without even noticing them.
As if you were the only one playing.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 5th, 2010


"Losses: A Game" is part of a collection of fantasy game stories that I've been working on sporadically for a couple of years.  This one seems to make the most sense to me out of all of them, really, as this is what I do when I start dwelling or getting depressed.  As soon as I think of one thing I've lost, it reminds me of something else I've lost and then something else, and the next thing I know I'm about to jump off a cliff.  My only problem with writing the story was the ending, which came to me about a year after I thought I'd finished it.  I was previously too concerned with trying to explain why people would want to play a game where there seemed to be no way to win.  What's the joy in that?  Then I realized that the whole nature of regret and depression is to endlessly punch the pain button, not the pleasure button, and so a game like Losses, if it did literally exist, wouldn't be an odd thing for someone to enjoy.  It would be incredibly popular.  This was confirmed to me by my teenaged niece the other day who was playing a game called "The Impossible Quiz" on her iphone.  I asked her how you win it and she said, "Oh, you can't win it. Nobody does. It's impossible.  It drives me crazy.  I can't stop playing."

- M.O. Walsh

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