The Guessing Game
Part 1: The Box
Old Man Yarborough visited Old Woman Yarborough at the local Community Retirement and Rejuvenation Center. It was her birthday, and he remembered even though she had not, and he brought her a present.
When he entered her room, his wife was watching television. She was watching a show for fishermen, a how-to show that told you what bait to use to attract each kind of fish. He shook his head, called it garbage, and turned it off.
"Hey!" she said. "I was watching that!"
"That's not important right now. Right now I'm here, and I brought you a present for your birthday."
"Is it my birthday? My."
"Yes, you are eighty-seven today. By my recollection," he said.
"It isn't funny to joke on someone's birthday," she said.
"But I am not joking," he said. "That is your age, as sure as rain."
"But I married you when I was so young, and you were so old," she said.
"It seemed so," he said.
"I sometimes think about you," she said. "When you aren't here. Where do you go?"
"I've answered that question many times before," he said. "Let's not start that again, Old Woman."
"You mean let's not start it for you. It's already started for me. I'm thinking about it right now. Try to stop me."
"I can't stop anything. But I did bring you a birthday present."
"A present for my birthday?"
"What is it?"
Mrs. Yarborough had been sitting up in bed, but when he asked her to begin the task of guessing, she leaned back and closed her eyes. She stuck out her tongue and pretended to snore.
"Okay then," said Mr. Yarborough. "I guess if you're asleep, I'd better head on home."
She sat up again. "Tell me about your home," she said.
"Oh, no. Not that again."
"Tell me about it, please," she said.
"No, no. You made me talk about that yesterday, and I'm not going to do it again."
"But I don't remember that. It isn't fair," she said.
"And I'm tired of hearing what's fair and what isn't," he said.
He put the birthday gift on the tray that reached over her bed. The gift was square, and a good size—the size of a head (the head of an adult, that is), and wrapped in bright yellow paper. With a brown bow. And on the tag, he had written — "To my dear Old Woman Yarborough, From her Very Frequent Companion"
"What does that mean, frequent?" she asked him. "I don't recall what that means."
"It means intermittent," he said. "Often there, but not there."
"Uh-huh," she said.
"Which is more than most people have, so you better be grateful," he said.
"It is irrelevant to me what I better do."
Old Man Yarborough covered his face with his hands and sighed. She could be very trying, especially on her birthday.
"Just guess what the present is. When you guess right, you can have it," he said.
Part 2: Yes, in a Sense
"Is it something for me to wear?" she guessed.
"No," he said.
"It's not a hat?"
"Or a scarf?"
"Or shoes? Is it shoes? Slippers?"
"Does it have anything to do with clothes?" Now she was beginning to get into the game. She was beginning to really care about what was in the box.
"Yes, in a sense."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Everything has to do with clothes," he said.
"Oh? If it were a frying pan, that would have to do with clothes? Would it if it were a little puppy?"
"You wear clothes while frying an egg or walking a dog. I do."
"We'll be here all week at this guessing if you answer my questions that way," she said.
"You'll be here all week anyway."
"Yes, I suppose so. And you will be here sometimes. And where—?"
"No! I don't want to answer any questions about where or who or what about me. I will only answer questions about the box."
"Oh really? Well, then of course let's keep playing your game. All your games are very important. Does the present have anything to do with love?"
"Yes. Love is in everything I give you."
"What a smart answer," she said. "Does what is in the box have anything to do with history?"
"Yes, everything has a history. And is related to history. Just think of where we'd be if the Nazis had won. Why, I don't think I'd be giving you this nice package in this nice Retirement and Rejuvenation Center. I bet you wouldn't be allowed to grow so old if the Nazis were in charge."
"Well, then keep guessing."
"Does it have to do with our history? Our personal history?"
"No, no. You won't learn about us by opening up that box."
"Will I learn anything at all?"
"Ah! You always learn something by confronting the unknown."
"I see. I see that my questions will have to be less abstract if I am ever going to discover what is in the box."
Part 3: Questions Less Abstract
"Then ask me something solid, Old Woman. Ask me something I can sink my teeth into, and give you a real, hard-hearted, full-blooded yes or no."
"Is it blue?"
"A bright color?"
"Um, yes. Sort of."
"Opaque or transparent?"
"Opalescent or grayish?"
"It depends on the light it's in. The shades change, and the shimmers come and go."
Part 4: The Tables Turn
"This is all so silly, Old Man," she said.
"Your answers don't make sense. You are either trying to throw me off track, or you don't know what's in the box yourself."
"Maybe both," he said.
Part 5: The Future of the Game in Jeopardy
"Couldn't I just open the box now?" she said.
"Not until you guess what is in it," he said.
"But what if I don't want to guess anymore? You think my time is so useless and empty, it deserves to be wasted on exerting my brainpower to arrive at the answer to something that could be discovered so easily? By untying this brown ribbon and tearing open this yellow paper? It is my birthday, after all. I should get to decide on the activities."
"It is my present," he said. "And my decision stands. You have to guess correctly before you receive the gift. It's fun to guess, trust me. It's the most fun you have all year."
"Is it the most fun you have all year?"
"Old Woman, quit getting off the subject. The subject isn't me and what I like or don't like. The subject is your present. You have to figure it out yourself."
"Why? Because it keeps my mind sharp?"
"It does that," he said. "But there are many reasons to guess what's in the box, this box or any box. Reasons you don't understand anymore, though you used to."
"I have other things I want to know, things that are much more important to me than the present."
Part 6: Trust Me, He Says
"Trust me," he said. "Keep guessing about the box. You've wasted so much time objecting to the guessing process that you are doing a very poor job at the guessing itself. You've barely asked any serious questions."
"Fine," she said as she leaned back and closed her eyes in genuine exhaustion.
"Fine," he said. "Resume."
"Can I use this gift outside?"
"Hmm. Is it soft?"
"Is it expensive?"
"You paid a lot of money for it?"
"I wouldn't say that, exactly. Though everything has its price."
"In some sense?"
"In some sense, and this gift has a price that is very high in that sense."
"Is this something I've ever seen before?"
"I don't know everything you've seen."
"I mean, is it something common? Like a toaster — something everyone has seen."
"Not everyone has seen a toaster. George Washington never saw one."
"You know what I mean—I mean after the invention of the toaster."
"There are people in other countries who have never seen a toaster."
"And what country do I live in?"
"And here in this country, most people have seen toasters."
"Not the Amish."
"Yes, most of them have seen toasters at some point, at least in a book. I bet. And anyway, you know I'm not Amish."
"How should I know that?"
"I assume you know me, or you wouldn't have brought me this present."
"Do you even know yourself, though? Can you say with one hundred percent certainty that before you came here, you were not Amish at any point in your life?"
The Old Woman was very mad, and she twisted her sheets up in her hands and felt that she was on the verge of crying.
"It isn't fair to use my forgetfulness against me," she said.
"I'm tired of hearing about what is and isn't fair. I just told you that."
"I forgot," she said.
Part 7: An Item of Comfort
"I have a guess," said the Old Woman.
"What is in the box is some way for me to end my existence. To put me out of my misery."
"Are you really miserable?"
"Wouldn't it be better if it were an item of comfort? A token from your youth? A book about grief? A small sculpture of praying hands?"
The Old Woman shrugged. She reached over to turn out the light on the nightstand beside her.
"It's only three in the afternoon, Old Woman. Not time for bed."
"Time for a nap," she said.
"But it's your birthday," he said. "You can sleep when you're dead."
"I don't want it to be my birthday anymore. I want you to go home."
"Yes, go home. And I won't even ask where it is, or anything else about you. As long as I don't have to figure out what is in that box. Please keep the box and give it to someone else."
"I'll think about what to do about the box. You let me worry about that. It's my box."
"It is now," she said.
"Good night, then," he said.
"You're just going to let me leave? You don't want to prolong my visit? I know it gets rather lonely in these places."
"I'll manage," she said.
"Well. Then I'll see you tomorrow?"
"I guess," she said.
He shuffled out, but he didn't take the box. She called after him for him to retrieve it, but he kept going. It sat on the tray.
Of course she couldn't sleep. Of course she opened the present.
Inside the wrapping paper was a cardboard box. Inside the cardboard box was a figurine of praying hands—hands that looked young, with smooth pink fingernails. And there was an inscription on the bottom of the statuette. It read:
Isaiah 66:17 ~ "Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following the one in the midst of those who eat the flesh of pigs and rats and other abominable things--they will meet their end together," declares the Lord.
Ivy Grimes lives and works in Birmingham, Alabama. She received her MFA from the University of Alabama.