I didn’t know the word at the time, but the boys in our first-grade class shaved our heads in “solidarity” with Paul. He was my best friend, so my mom took me to the hospital to visit. When I entered the room, I became upset because it wasn’t him- his black hair was really gone in a way mine wasn’t- black shadows surrounded his eyes- he was the most tired person I’d ever seen- his voice was different because he had to whisper.
My mom sat me down at the table next to his bed and left the room. I put together the plastic pieces of Connect-Four and split the chips into two piles, red and black. Paul coughed and something inside of him rattled like a can of spray paint. I told him about school and our field trips to the pond and post office. I told him about my last hockey game, how I scored two goals and two assists, not enough for a hat trick but that’s four points, I said. I became angry with him because he wasn’t paying good attention.
After a few moves, Paul said it would be better if I put in his pieces for him. He handed me a black chip and pointed to the third column from the right. I dropped his chip for him; it fell with a click. Then I sat on the edge of my seat and shot my own red chip down the center column and told Paul about the ride I took on a tractor pulling a wagon full of hay and big orange pumpkins you could sit on. I made it clear to him how Fall is the best season, because my birthday’s November 11th. He kept falling back onto his pillow.
Eventually, I had it so no matter where he went I’d win. I told him so. He chewed this over and said nothing. He stared at the game. Then he stared through it, through me, like he saw something far away. I peered behind me, twirled back to Paul and repeated myself- he could go anywhere… I’d still win. He shut his eyes, so I went ahead and chose his move for him, to block my three-in-a-row, but it didn’t matter because I could put my chip on top of that and connect-four, anyway. I felt happy when I won. But right after, I considered Paul boring because he wasn’t competitive.
The next game, when he handed me his chips, I was afraid to touch his hand because I thought I’d hurt him. I didn’t try as hard as before and kept looking to the door. Every move, he seemed to make a life-or-death decision yet didn’t care. I got real nervous and didn’t like visiting Paul. My mom came in, I put the game in its box, and Paul fell asleep. I said bye to Paul and his eyes opened but I don’t think he was awake.