I. We Each One Us Attend The Screen
Because Agony is for spectators, and because spectators do not take in Agony from The Frontier, but rather, bear witness to Agony through a peep-hole, it is important that the nature of this witnessing be considered, especially insofar as it saturates the witnessings of the Pioneers and of those in Agony.
Spectators never witness Agony as it happens; spectators only ever witness Agony by way of a delay. No one knows the exact delay because those who behold Agony itself cannot see into the Parlors, and those who can see into the Parlors cannot see Agony itself. The delay confirms that a spectator is never seeing what someone in Agony is seeing; that empathy, where Agony is concerned, is optional; that spectators are looking at a television screen and not at Agony itself.
Why is no one allowed to know Agony from beside Agony—to take it in without the use of a screen? The first answer to this question is straightforward: in this great world, there are far too many who are capable of—and who indeed desire—a view on to Agony and all that precedes it. We are all of us spectators—and this must be asserted in the face of the many naive traditions insisting that a portion of us are of a lesser sort, and can or should not truly bear witness to Agony and all that precedes it. No stadium could reasonably hold all of us and provide all of us with an equally good view. No one, therefore, bears witness to Agony from the stadium in which it is played. We each one of us attend the screen, and we have, each one of us, an equally good view.
Why are no spectators allowed in to The Frontier—why are spectators not allowed to take in Agony, that is, without the use of a screen? This question has proceeded already too quickly, and in doing so, it has made a potentially destructive assumption: it is possible to bear witness to Agony without the use of a screen. Is this a fair assumption? We might assume that it is possible to bear witness to Agony without the use of a television screen, but is it possible for a spectator to “attend” the game with no screen at all? No, it is not possible, and this is the more important point. It is vain to suggest that any one of us could ever have a direct view of where we are. Where we are is only ever where we are because of the screen through or upon which it appears. Out of respect for the screen, all of those with a view on to Agony are restricted to the same screen—a television screen—in the same place, a Parlor.
The highest quality high-definition big-screen televisions are provided by the State and installed in local taverns and meeting halls. When State televisions are installed in a tavern or meeting hall, that place becomes, officially, a Parlor. Televisions in Parlors are known as Parlor Screens. Every Child is assigned a seat in one or another Parlor, based on his place of residence and his or her parents’ historical Parlor-affiliation(s). Persons belonging to the same Parlor refer to one another as Kin, and their bond is strong. Each county elects, every four years, a Game Warden, who is in charge of licensing, upkeeping, and monitoring Parlors in his district. The Game Warden is also responsible for the assignation of a Parlor-seat for each new spectator (Babies becoming Children, and new arrivals from other counties).
Smaller Parlors are referred to as Cute Parlors. Larger Parlors are called Mausoleums. Parlors that are neither small nor large are referred to as Straight Parlors.
On a Gambling Day, a Parlor is not a business—it is a hearth. A hearth admits no strangers, no suspicion, no exploitation—it is a place founded upon love and respect. There are no servants present on a Gambling Day; a Parlor’s Kin shares the tasks associated with a Gambling Day—preparing food and drinks, decorating, cleaning up—and they understand that Game Wardens never tolerate rancor among Kin.
All spectators, which is to say, all free Children, Tenants, and Landlords, are provided with an adequate television for their home (should they need one), and this is where most television-watching (the watching of television on days other than Gambling Day) occurs. Home-televisions, like Parlor Screens, broadcast all Pioneer Family programming. Agony, however, is only ever broadcast on the Parlor Screens. Agony is not accessible to those who are at home.
In the home, as in the Parlor, there is a view on to what precedes and what follows Agony. In the Parlor, there is a view on to Agony.
Babies are not allowed into the Parlor. This means that, during Agony, Babysitters are needed. Babysitters are hired by Game Officials from the pool of Children and Tenants who have been absent from a view on to Agony for at least one year. The longer one has been absent from a view on to Agony, the greater the chance of being chosen as a Babysitter. Babysitters gather on The 65 Breaths in Romper Rooms. Romper Rooms are spaces designed to keep Babies from wandering into Parlors.
Once a Babysitter, always a Babysitter. Aged Babysitters considered incapable of working are still brought to their Romper Room on days they are expected to work. Game Officials hire as many Babysitters as are needed—one Babysitter for every three Babies is the rule of thumb, but this ratio may need to be adjusted as the Baby-Sitting population ages. Babysitters baby-sit a total of twenty-four days each year: The 65 Breaths, Gambling Day, the day after Gambling Day, the seven days of the Petique Fo’ Sho’ celebration, and the five days of Timorous Beastie Time (discussed below).
When a Baby turns twelve he is a Child, and so, is eligible to have a view on to Agony. The Child is required to be in attendance in his assigned Parlor-seat for the first four Agonies he is eligible to attend. After he has attended his first Agony, he is said to have become Handsome. When he has turned 12 but has not yet attended his first Agony (this period may be as short as one day and as long as three months), he is referred to as Ripe. The guardians of the Child are responsible for his attendance; if a Child is absent from any of the first four Agonies he is eligible to attend, his guardians face forfeiture of all possessions, all wealth, and also a ten-year prison sentence.
Babysitters, of course, remain eligible for Agony; Babysitters chosen to enter into Agony are subsequently—which is to say, within The Covered Wagons, The Casino, and, potentially, Laughter—referred to as Pioneers, then Gamblers, and then, possibly, Peddlers.
IV. Incluses And Recluses
Setting aside the Chuff, it is rare that someone in Agony has never been a spectator. The Chuff, of course, because he is a Baby, has never had a view on to Agony, but being a Baby still, he is only able to take in Agony through his Babyishness. The only other instance wherein someone in Agony will have never had a view on to Agony is when each of the Families chooses, in any one or in all of the first three rounds, a Ripe Child. Such a Child—a Child who has never had a view on to Agony and yet is bound to be in Agony—is called an Incluse.
Three scenarios involving Incluses are possible. Because Incluses might be chosen in one, two, or three rounds, it is possible for Agony to possess as many as 8 Ripe Children. An Incluse is recognized, even more so than the Chuff, as uniquely innocent. Incluses are no longer Babies—they are Children—but the seed that at once defines a Child and promises to grow through him and erode his Childhood—that seed is not able to grow. An Incluse, thus, remains deprived of the assumption that he is, in essence, a spectator. This means he will be deprived—his whole life—of the exquisite luxury of a spectator’s view. For the Incluse, life is not to be taken in—it is to be lived. An Incluse, after all, will take in Agony (if he ever takes in Agony) only after Agony has taken him in. An Incluse, then, has never and will never expect Tenancy; his pleasures, should he develop any, must be cultivated altogether outside of the expectation of a Tenant’s view (let alone a Landlord’s), and his luxuries can never be as exquisite as the luxuries of those who have been given to imagine themselves as—before all else—spectators.
All hospital rooms are, legally and functionally, Parlors, and all Children, Tenants, and Landlords who are hospitalized on Gambling Day are afforded the opportunity to take in Agony from their hospital beds. Hospital rooms are exempted from occupancy requirements—the guiding principle is, however, the same: everybody must have a good view of the screen. Hospitalized Children who have not yet seen a game, if they are at all capable of watching, are not exempted from their responsibility—they are required to watch. That is, no surgeries or procedures of any kind should be done if they interfere with a Child’s becoming Handsome. A Child who misses his opportunity to become Handsome—for whatever reasons—is never allowed, thereafter, to become Handsome, and has lost for all time his right to look into Agony. Such a Child is declared A Brutal Recluse, and this he will remain for the rest of his life, unless he enters into Agony, whereupon he is declared A Brutal Incluse and treated, from a rule standpoint, like any other Incluse.
A Brutal Recluse is not necessarily a Brutal Recluse because he deserves to be. Because someone does not deserve to be what he is, however, does not lessen the degree to which he is what he is. Upon becoming a Brutal Recluse, the Child is taken from his guardians, who face the aforementioned penalties if his failure to attend was at all preventable. He will not be returned to their guardianship in any case. Instead, he is enrolled in a boarding school, The Saints, where he stays for six years. The Saints is a prestigious liberal arts middle/high-school, and its function is to prepare Brutal Recluses for a successful college career. Every Brutal Recluse will not go on to pursue a college degree, but the great majority will. If a Brutal Recluse fails out of or is expelled from The Saints, he is given a ten-year prison sentence. When he has served this time, he must re-enroll. If he fails out or is expelled a second time, he is sent again to prison—this time with a life sentence and no chance of parole.
A Brutal Recluse remains eligible to be chosen for and to enter into Agony. If he is chosen, however, he ceases to be a Brutal Recluse—he is now a Brutal Incluse. So long as he has not been in Agony, however, he remains a Brutal Recluse, and he is not allowed to be a spectator to Agony. On Gambling Days, all students at The Saints and all Brutal Recluse inmates are locked in their rooms. Such rooms—rooms accenting their inhabitants’ lack of a view on to Agony—are referred to as Nature. Brutal Recluses who are not in Nature while Gambling is taking place are considered society’s most unforgivable criminals. When they are located and arrested, they are imprisoned. In prison, they are given, daily, a lethal supply of morphine, which they have the option of ingesting. They are given nothing else. They die either by dehydration or by morphine overdose.
Joe Wenderoth is Associate Professor of English and teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of California. His books of poetry are: Disfortune, It Is If I Speak, and No Real Light. He has published one novel, Letters To Wendy’s, and one book of essays, The Holy Spirit Of Life: Essays Written For John Ashcroft’s Secret Self.