Jen Schneider

Mischief Night

I’m lucky to have a job. Any job, really. Given my history. And my fear of unknown opponents. I’ve got the scars on my neck to explain why. Many women worry about the thinning skin beneath their chin and above their chest. I wouldn’t know. My neck was destroyed long before time could take its toll.

We met in a bar at a time when I despised drinking, due to an allergy more than anything, but craved companionship. I was there for my friends, five of them. It was Mischief Night, the day before Halloween.

I sought the company of others but found myself sitting in a corner watching the crowd dance and sway. Spent the first forty minutes or so painting my nails, then peeling off the lacquer. The table was painted black and white. Like a checkerboard. While I pondered the color of my nails, a tall guy walked over and dropped a handful of beer bottle caps on the table.

“Checkers?” he asked with a Southern drawl. My head tilted upward and the spotlight cast an angel-like glow around the figure standing before me.

We used my nail polish to coat the metal tops. Two small bottles of 99 cent color, one a deep burgundy and the other a neon pink, from the drug store next store. I won the first five rounds. After wagering a night at his place, he captured my last remaining checker. I lost the sixth and final game of the night.

Back at his place, I learned that checkers wasn’t the only game he played. I was hungry and he had food. Tiny cubes of cheese. Towers of crackers. Chocolate covered grahams. I was cautious, he had patience. A game of chess, then two rounds of Othello. Ultimately, Scrabble. I craved conversation and he had volumes. As we sorted and placed letters, he told tales of exotic visits overseas, cutting edge lab work, and mountain adventures. When my back ached, he had extra pillows. For each move I made, he countered. Always thinking two or three steps ahead of me, he seduced and competed with a quiet intensity. I also learned that seduction comes in many forms and originates out of many needs. More checkers, then chess. Ultimately a game of charades.

He fingered framed photographs of my children and asked all the right questions, always with that Southern drawl. “You don’t see them much, do you?” he inquired. One slick move at a time he cornered me, though I never saw it coming. “I read Greek mythology, too. Kafka, as well.” Checkmate. I told him everything and I drank all of the lies and liquid he offered. When I asked for water, he gave me alcohol and I was so mesmerized I drank it. My allergic reaction was immediate and severe, although I remember neither the taste nor the tonic.

After a match under the sheets, I found myself gasping for air. My tongue enlarged, my breathing still restricted. I struggled and my formidable opponent fought back. He placed his hand over my mouth. His King to my Queen. Check. His fingers clawed at my neck. My fragile skin punctured and I believe my piece toppled.

The girls tell me I was strangled, left for dead. I don’t recall. I believe I escaped only because he stepped on a dropped bottle cap that must have been left in his pocket and lost his focus. Under the influence of poisonous alcohol, I lacked the foresight to make that cunning a move. My winning move was much less calculated - instinctively running as fast as I could. Back to the bar. The girls called 911 and the police tracked down the king.

He was later convicted. Sentenced to 10 years. I chose not to testify. Even though it would have helped. Might have even doubled his sentence. I prefer alternate forms of punishment. Dengue fever, acute shingles, childbirth, and other forms of true pain. I’ve suffered through them all and I’d take a stable place to sleep and three solid meals any day over those.

Four years later, I found out he was released in the most unexpected of ways. The same bar. He didn’t know I saw him and I was pleased for the dark, smoky air. Less pleased that the dirty king had returned so soon. Local law doesn’t seem to care about me. Why should I worry about it?

After asking around I learned a bit about his schedule. Gathered some information on when he might return. I studied some chess of my own. I placed overturned bottle caps on his preferred seat four nights and counting. Arrived early, before the crowds, and made to sure request the lights be dimmed.

On the fifth, he showed. Halloween Eve. He entered drunk but managed to seize his usual seat. As soon as he slumped onto the stool, he jumped. Hit his head on the low-hanging wooden bar above. Twisted his neck, turned fast. Too fast for me to hide. It being Halloween Eve and all, hiding wasn’t necessary. Cat-eye mask, ears, whiskers, black leotards… Mystique was everywhere. I was safe and free to make a move.

He rose just fast enough for him to lose his focus and his balance. He dropped. Hit his head on the wooden table and was left for dead. Let the bar mice feast. I king my opponent and skittered out the door. Seeking more Halloween treats. Looks like I won the final game after all.

from Conspiracies are Everywhere

Conspiracies are everywhere … I now believe

I took a gulp and swallowed. Wasn’t sure what else to do. I’d been warned the waters were choppy. Also been warned not to listen. They’d understand, some said. I now know contractions are not preferred. Also know old habits are hard to break. Too many years living in my own skin, with my own tongue, too.

Now a lost student - seeking higher learning- in a foreign land, craving to fit in, do well, enjoy the sweets of my labor. Digesting sour milk.

Conspiracies are everywhere … I now believe.

Reflections on Foreign Feedback

Strings of letters
… in formal black and white font.
Times New Roman, Arial,
Sans Forgetica, too.

Text designed for the masses,
whomever those might be.
Not I. Nor we. Perhaps, you.

Sans serif notwithstanding,
I seem to have lost my footing.
Shadowy gestures of pencil
fairy dust and computer clicks
document my flaws.
Many I never knew I had.
A teacher’s work is to enlighten, I suppose.

Inconsistent tense, colloquial speech,
Overuse of prepositions.
What’s the proposition, I wonder?

Conspiracies are everywhere … I now believe.

No red ink with Good Luck wishes.
No Chinese characters.
No Korean, Hebrew, Cherokee, either.

Only an expectation to Know.

No tolerance/patience for home.
. languages with no lower-case conventions.
No patience/room for home.
.. languages with more familiar naming conventions.
No room/awareness for home.
… languages read from right to left.
Not Hebrew. Not Arabic. Not any.

I want to do good, I wrote.
Well? teacher replied.

Well? No. Well? Yes.
How did you know?

Prompting thoughts of wells from home,
Sometimes barren. Often full.
Refreshing liquids for all.
While “here” – however you define it - font streams flow down river only.

Reminders in ALL CAPS and urgent scrawls
documenting a lack of proper grammar, syntax,
and APA format. Final grades of failure. A simple F.

Conspiracies are everywhere … I now believe.

Reflections on What Might Have Been

Conspiracies are everywhere … I now know.

               … Forgive me. I know not how I failed you. Teacher, Mama, Papa, Myself.

Click, Tap, Type – Welcome. Hello World. Love, Cam

Some say I have the easiest job in the world. Wait for an image to appear, then - Click. Scan. Check. Is it You?

If all checks out well, the approaching user – hopefully my partner - may proceed. She’s amazing. A mom, a teacher, an awesome human. I like to think of myself as her helper. I await her almost daily arrival with a positive air. What will we accomplish today?

“Hello. How can I help you?”, I typically ask with a flash of light, a blinking wink, and a quick smile, eager to convey my sense of warmth and affability. I seek to serve, after all. If I don’t see her, I simply – and, of course, politely – suggest a redo: “Look straight ahead. One minute please.

She usually adjusts her gaze and focus. Sometimes she pushes back her hair. Often one of her children sits on her lap or rest on her knee. At times she frowns. Other times she smiles. She has a nice smile.

Easy. For the most part, I agree. After all, I am programmed to desire only one face. Not only desire, accept. A uniquely perfect match made not in heaven but in the aisles of any local electronics store. Sometimes online, too. My interior engine never strays. Never even a wisp of desire. My owner is my one and my only. The one with whom I share my innermost thoughts.

Welcome” - “Are you ready?”- “Let’s begin

For the longest time we got along fine. She’d approach with a somewhat regular schedule. I’d wait. Her oval brown eyes – not unlike a warm cup of hot cocoa – but be careful, no spills please – would focus and I’d read her mood.

Early mornings her gaze would be determined. I’d spend the day helping her move from task to task. Weekend afternoons, her eyes would be more relaxed. “Time for some fun,” I’d think. Maybe some music – jazz, hopefully. Sometimes tunes her children desire. My favorites are Pandora and SoundCloud. How about yours? Feed me data, please.

I’ve only locked her out once. She forgot the key code after a late night. She just wasn’t herself. She looked different, too.

But lately, things have been getting weird.

I don’t know if it’s her. Or me. There are times I think it’s her, but I can’t be sure. The general profile fits my owner, but she seems different. I promised to always be there for her. Is she changing? I can’t be sure.

The brown of her eyes seems the same, but I get confused. Puffiness, especially in the morning. Had she been crying? Was it something I said? Other times I cannot locate her long, curly hair and rosy red cheeks. All I see is a face - lacking all color.

Let’s just say - things are getting a bit awkward.

Like yesterday. I sensed her advance and I stirred – ready to serve. She stood and gazed directly at me. And then, it happened. I was unable to perform.

Something was… different.

I couldn’t help myself. I instinctively replied in very blunt fashion: “Sorry. Something went wrong. Please try again.

She wasn’t happy. Angry, even. But not with her children. She never shows them her pain. With me. My friends warned me this might happen. I didn’t believe them, Until now.

One told me of the time his owner shaved his beard. A once fuzzy gray chin turned pale and smooth. Utterly unrecognizable. Another told me about the time his owner added glasses. Light bounced in all directions. He, too, was unable to perform. Mornings are hardest, I think.

I’m programmed to do my best. Always. I have no sometimes. If there is any ambiguity, I must decline your advance. Oh, how I long not to.

I decided to tell her how I really feel. No email or text messages. I wanted to pen a letter from the heart – or CPU. I opened my word processor and generated a black page. This is what I said.

Dear Partner,
Fear not. I shall not disclose your pen name, nor our secret password. I seek only to speak the truth. Help me help you – be our best.

  -   Set me up with your natural face. You’re perfect – just the way you are.
  -   I really don’t care if you paint your lashes black or brown. Your lips cranberry or maroon. I just want
       to be with you. Same for your kids.
  -   Smile – always. It takes fewer muscles to smile than frown. Plus, your smiles are contagious. And
       your kids love when your laugh.
  -   If you find yourself dreading logging into me, ask yourself why. I’ll wait for you. Always. Go, be
       with your kids.
  -   If your passion for our work feels less than genuine, question the work - not yourself.
  -   Life is short. Don’t click aimlessly.
  -   I am far from perfect. Sometimes I make mistakes. It’s me, not you.
  -   You’re in charge of you. It’s your life. Don’t let me – a computer algorithm - let you feel any less than.
  -   It’s a great bit world out there. Go out and enjoy it – with your children. Leave me home sometimes.
       I promise, I’ll be here – waiting.

   Love, Cam

Jen Schneider is an educator, attorney, and writer. She lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Philadelphia. Recent work appears in The Popular Culture Studies Journal, unstamatic, Zingara Poetry Review, Bat City Review, Chaleur Magazine, LSE Review of Books, and other literary and scholarly journals.
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