Winning Prisoner

by June Sylvester Saraceno

Of the indoor games we played in winter, Prisoner was one of Dare’s favorites. One late afternoon when I had been tied to the small ladder back chair in Dare’s room for what felt like hours, it became my least favorite. The light had leeched away leaving me in a gathering dusk. At least he hadn’t blindfolded me, though he had gagged me and it was causing my jaw to ache. I squirmed more and tried to loosen the various cords holding my hands behind the chair. My wrists were chaffed and my armpits and shoulders throbbed from the slung back position.

I hate this game, I thought in red fury. Dare always got out of my knots in a matter of minutes, no matter how tight I pulled or how many times I tripled them. I never win this game. Never. I could hear the muffled sound of TV voices coming from the living room and knew he was in there watching some show while I was still tied up, now on the verge of tears. I hate him I thought, imagining him watching television while I was about to be sitting alone in the dark.

I made muffled gagging sounds in my attempts to scream but knew even as I did, that he’d never hear over the TV. I’d already tried stomping the chair around but it only hurt my armpits more. It was his room so no one would think to look for me there. But then, he’d have to go to bed sometime, and so would I, and then Mother would ask where I was. I tried to resign myself. Looking around the small room I remembered why there were two twin beds in here.

Granddaddy had slept in one. I was only little then, but I remembered him. I remembered his rough, stubbly cheek when he would put me to bed or lift me out. He was a gray man, gray hair, gray cheek stubble, even his skin seemed grayish. He sang songs to us and gave us candy. We used to raid his possessions hunting for hidden candy, digging into the deep pockets of his overcoat, going through his medicine drawer. Sometimes we found it. Most of the time, we had to wait for him to decide when we’d been good enough for some. I knew he had died but I couldn’t remember how. It had to be while he was living here in Dare’s room.

I tried to think of what had happened and I wished Dare would come in and untie me because he would know, not to mention I was sick of this dumb game and I would never, ever play it again. My arms really, really hurt, but a shadow was starting to take shape.

We were sitting at the table but not eating and Daddy was telling us about heaven. He was telling us Granddaddy had gone there. I remember now. I had been paying more attention to Dare because he was biting his lip like he did when he was trying hard not to cry and I was wondering why he was almost crying and whether he was in trouble. But then Mother started to cry and blew her nose in a handkerchief and just about then Dare broke down. I started crying, too, because everyone else was and I just couldn’t help it.

What Daddy had been saying was Granddaddy was dead. Why hadn’t I remembered that before? I must have noticed he didn’t lift me out of bed anymore or say prayers with me. I tried to think of what happened. I couldn’t remember ever going to a funeral for him. It was like there was this blank screen in my head. I looked around the room and I could re-furnish it with his stuff. He had half the dresser top and on his side was a comb, a razor, a framed family picture of him and his wife and their kids, and one of those kids was my mother. He would hold it up for me as he rested me on a hip and point her out saying something like that I was the spittin’ image of her. He said it a lot. We did this often. I’d ask to see that picture of when Mother was little and he’d bring me in and show me.

He smelled like Aqua Velva. He always wore long sleeves shirts. I heard Mother one day explain to a neighbor lady why he’d wear long sleeves even in the dog days of summer. She said he had gotten a tattoo in his young days but once he was born again he was embarrassed about it. I thought about Uncle Erskine’s tattoo and wondered whether Granddaddy also had a bare naked mermaid on his arm. I started to feel bad about how I’d forgotten about him and about how much I couldn’t remember still. Had I even seen his tattoo ever? What was that song he used to sing when he was getting me to fall asleep …I see the moon and the moon sees me, down through the leaves of the old oak tree. That was one of them. Folks still sing that to little kids.

He had half the closet, too. I could only remember that big black overcoat, though, because sometimes it had candy in the pockets. Heavy. Wool. I could hear him and Dare sometimes talking in their room nights when I was in bed.  I started to feel scared then. The room was completely dark. I felt like I could cry. What if other people die – would I just keep going along as if nothing happened, as if they had just been visiting? Where was I when Granddaddy was buried? I don’t even know where his grave is I thought miserably.

And then I did start to cry. It started to feel like everyone was gone and I was just tied to a chair for no good reason and I would die there too. Then I heard Dare turning the door handle and a slice of light came in from the hall. He stood there laughing, which made me cry harder and I started feeling like I was choking. He came around and untied my feet, then hands, but waited a long mean minute before he undid the gag.

“I hate you,” I spat, wiping my face with my shirt.

“Same to ya.”

“I been in here for hours.”

“You’re such a cry baby. You been in here maybe one hour tops.”

“I saw Granddaddy.” A sudden panic shot through me. Where had that come from? Why did I say that?

Dare flicked on the light and looked at me hard. “What did you say?”

“I saw Granddaddy.”


If I had been planning to back out of the lie somehow, I knew now it was impossible. “He was wearing a long sleeve plaid shirt all buttoned up even though it’s hot in here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“He was looking for you to tell you to stop messing with me.” It was coming back, the way he would say Don’t momick your little sister like that, son. You’re her older brother — you got to look after her. I could almost really hear him say it. I could almost smell Aqua Velva. “The whole room smelled like Aqua Velva when he was here.”

Dare sat down hard on the bed. He just stared at me like he was looking right through me. Then he sort of shook his head a little and said, “You’re making it up,” through gritted teeth.

Rubbing my sore wrists and getting up from the chair, I said, “He said he was sorry he didn’t have candy. He couldn’t bring it with him from where he was.”

I saw with alarm that Dare was biting his lip. Granddaddy and Dare had been real close, everybody knew it, but it was another thing I hadn’t spent much time thinking about. I understood with a mix of panic and triumph that I’d shaken him, that he still hurt about Granddaddy dying. A few minutes ago I hated him and would have done anything to hurt him, but now I felt a little scared and I also felt like I was missing something inside. Why didn’t I want to cry over Granddaddy? It made me more curious than sad to think about his dying. Was I heartless? That was it! He had had a heart attack. I couldn’t remember how I knew but I did. And all those medicines, they were his “heart pills.”

I took a few steps toward the door but Dare wasn’t looking at me. Then, out of nowhere, I turned around and said, “He was holding his heart. He told me it hurt his heart to see me all tied up like that.”

Dare blinked hard about six times and stared at me like I was a ghost. Sounding just about like a frog croaking he said, “Get out. Get out of our room. I ain’t playing with you, Willie.”

He got up like he might smack me. But he stopped and stood completely still. He had said our room and I knew he was now sharing it again with Granddaddy in his head. I was at the door in a blink and before I closed it behind me I hissed through the crack, “I ain’t playing that dumb game ever again.”

When I got to my room I didn’t even turn the light on. I sat on the edge of my bed looking out the window, thinking about what I’d done. It was mean, but so was Dare. Served him right. He thinks he’s so tough but he’s probably in there crying like a baby. Then I felt a stabbing in my center. Why wasn’t I that upset thinking about Granddaddy? Didn’t I love him too? How could Dare, mean as he was, love somebody more than I did? I even had more leeway to cry since I was a girl but here I was completely dry-eyed just wondering about details like what did that tattoo look like. I started humming …and the moon sees me, down through the leaves of the old oak tree, please let the light that shines on me shine on the one I love. That made me feel a little teary but I was still having to work at it. I thought of Dare in his room and I knew he was face down in the pillow, stifling himself so no one would hear him crying. And from some icy, dark place a knot slipped and I thought with pure cold meanness I win. And I didn’t even try to feel sad after that.