Apr 7, 2006

Loser's game

The wall above the urinal was white, reflecting the fluorescent lights in yellow bars in an out-of-focus sheen. Every day it would go grimy, with water marks and palm prints and the fogs of breathing bodies, and every night the janitor would wipe it clean again. He'd mix a pine-sol solution that burned his hand until his skin dried and reddened and cracked around the knuckles, and he'd soak the rag and his hand and run the red rag in circles over the white wall until it was clean again.

In the middle of the white wall, at eye height above the urinal, eye height at least for me at 6' 3'', someone had started a game of tic-tac-toe. They'd scratched the lines with a pen knife or a pin and then went back over them, pushing ink into the tile's wounds. Four lines and nine boxes and in the middle box someone had carved and inked an X.

Someone made the first move in the game on the wall above the urinal, and waited. I don't know how long they've waited, when that first move was made, but they're still waiting. There's an X in the middle and that move is an invitation for a response, for a second move, for a reply. But the X stands alone. There are 255,168 possible moves in a game of tic-tac-toe, but on the white wall on a square tile in the men's room, there's only that one move. It's not a graffittied-up bathroom. The wall is blank but for the lights' reflections and that one move on that one game of tic-tac-toe.

I don't know how long it's been there. I don't know if maybe tomorrow the janitor will wipe it away, mix some stronger solution to work the tattoo out of that tile. But even if it's only been here a week or a day, there must have been scores of men looking at it. Dozens or hundreds passing through the bathroom in the back, the customers and the management and the busboys and the cooks and the waiters. And the janitor. Maybe the janitor has seen it more than anybody and maybe he doesn't wash it out partly because he's waiting to see where the second move will go.

The X is easier to cut, than the O, and maybe no one wants to embarrass themselves with an oblong octagon or diamond. But no one's even tried. All of the eight open squares are clean, empty. Maybe no one wants to lose. No one wants to accept an invitation to a game they can't win. So all of us pee and zip and flush, looking at that game and deciding not to play, not to lay down a mark.