The alluring path of electronic games can be dangerously seductive. Explaining their impact is best illustrated through a story I wrote (right after I erased Solitaire from my laptop) several years ago. I’ll save the rest of my comments for the end of the story.
The Call (by JD Betts)
With a second cup of coffee perched nearby, the best part of Gertrude Gunther’s morning routine began by checking her e-mail. As a retired junior high school math teacher who occasionally filled in to substitute, she reveled in having time to relax and catch up with old friends. The breakfast dishes had been removed and she considered this “her” time.
Little by little, Gertrude began to surf the Internet, but stayed away from those dreaded social sites like Facebook. She’d heard how they drained the life right out of you. Frankly, she didn’t care to know what other people ate for lunch anyway. No, she would not become caught up in something so time-consuming and utterly meaningless.
Instead, she went straight to AOL, logged on, read her e-mail, deleted spam, and checked the national news. Sometimes she allowed herself the guilty pleasure of scanning the celebrity headlines as well.
But one day, while sipping her hazelnut decaf and waiting for the computer to finish its virus scan, she noticed the “Accessories” icon as soon as it materialized onscreen.
Curious, she opened it, and another screen appeared. “Games” sounded interesting; so she double-clicked. A new window offered several options: Hearts, Freecell, Minesweeper, and Solitaire. She tried them all. Hearts, of course, she’d played in card club years ago. Nothing to master there. Neither Freecell nor Minesweeper caught her fancy. But Solitaire. She had no idea how to play, but something about it beckoned her.
At first, she seemed to be doing fine, but knew she was missing some principle. The “Help” icon didn’t really help.
She was still trying to figure out the game when her husband wandered into the den. Jerry had retired from his insurance career six months earlier (a year after her), but continued working part-time as a traveling consultant. Today, he was home.
“Any good e-mail, honey?”
She’d forgotten all about the Internet. “Jerry, do you know anything about Solitaire?”
“Baby, you’re talking to the Solitaire king. What do you want to know?”
Gertrude winced. She could always tell when he was about to turn tedious. She hoped she didn’t come across that way when she taught. She listened to an excruciating explanation as her husband detailed the rules of Solitaire along with a commentary on his own special methods, some of which she’d already figured out.
Jerry couldn’t believe his wife had never played before. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Impatient to apply her newly learned knowledge and tired of Jerry’s droning, Gertrude snapped. “Have you seen me playing?”
After thirty-five years of marriage, Jerry ought to recognize the signals. “I’m going to run down to the hardware store. Need anything?”
Gertrude barely heard him, but shook her head “No” to whatever he was saying.
The first time she played, an hour flew by in what seemed like minutes. Thank goodness the computer tracked the time for her, or she might have missed her hair appointment. When she returned home, she tidied the house, did some laundry, and started dinner. Jerry was tinkering in the garage, probably with some new device he’d discovered at the hardware store.
Gertrude checked the clock. She had almost thirty minutes before she needed to set the table for dinner. With a thrill of excitement, she nimbly double-clicked the three necessary icons. In no time, she won two hands of Solitaire. She was a natural.
When she heard the door from the garage open, she glanced at the time. Forty-five minutes had disappeared. Did the roast smell burnt? Quickly she shut down the computer and dashed into the kitchen just before Jerry entered.
“I love that Solitaire game,” she told him. “Thanks for showing me how it works.”
Jerry eyed his wife steadily. “I’m glad you like it. Have you been playing all this time?”
“Just a few minutes while the roast finished. I guess the time got away from me.”
“Gertrude, don’t take this the wrong way, but that game can stick like honey. It can be hard to let go. Just be careful you don’t get hooked.”
The mere sound of Jerry’s voice scraped Gertrude’s nerves. How dare he patronize her. Wasn’t she a mature, intelligent woman? She had never been addicted to anything in her life. She bit back her thoughts and answered him sweetly.
“Don’t worry, Jerry. I’m just enjoying something new. That’s all.” Gertrude offered her schoolgirl laugh, which had never failed to disarm him. He smiled back at her.
After dinner, Jerry settled into the evening news while Gertrude loaded the dishwasher. When she entered the living room to join her husband, she noted his drooping head. His glasses tipped precariously on the end of his nose; if she clapped her hands loudly, they would surely drop. On the verge of waking him, Gertrude reconsidered. She glimpsed at the clock and made an internal deal to play the game for only twenty minutes. The news would be over at six-thirty. She went into the den and closed the door.
At seven-thirty, Gertrude was surprised to see she’d been playing for an hour. She did notice her back had tightened a little. She paused the game and listened. The TV was blaring a sitcom Jerry despised. He was still asleep. She knew she should rouse him; his neck would be stiff. But one more game, she thought; then we’ll have a nice conversation and watch the dramas together. She could rub his neck for him.
Two hours later, Gertrude didn’t hear the door to the den open behind her. Her heart jumped when she heard her husband’s accusatory voice.
“Have you been in here all this time? Your program’s almost over.”
“I, I…” She turned toward him, at a loss to explain.
“Gertrude, you never miss your show. And it’s a new episode.” Jerry’s eyebrows knitted together as he studied her.
“I felt like doing something different tonight. What’s wrong with that? You were asleep anyway.”
Jerry continued. “Do you want to watch the rest, or should we just go to bed? “ When she didn’t answer, he continued “Are you able to shut off the computer by yourself?”
With her nose in the air, Gertrude haughtily turned off the computer. “I can stop anytime I want.”
“I can.” She knew Jerry’s tone so well.
The next morning, over breakfast, neither of them mentioned the Solitaire subject. They ate oatmeal with blueberries and bananas. They sipped their coffee while reading the newspaper together, a new routine since they were both home. Jerry liked the business news, while Gertrude preferred the local interest articles.
When they finished their sections, Jerry helped her clear the table.
“Do you want to walk outside or in the mall?” This was another routine they’d begun. Morning walks. Gertrude’s cholesterol had skyrocketed in the last six months and Jerry was determined to help lower it. In nice weather they rode their bikes, but colder weather had stopped them. Jerry tried to convince Gertrude to join the local health club so they could swim, but she wasn’t interested. Instead, they’d started to walk. Gertrude sighed at Jerry’s question. Since he’d retired, he seemed to squeeze away her time. Before, when he left for the office, she could ease into her day with one of the morning talk shows. Now he was always… there.
“Indoors or outside?” The man wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Walking today; inside or out?”
Fortunately, Gertrude remembered something. “I’m having lunch with Mavis today—it’s Thursday.”
Jerry avoided her widowed friend from the Garden Club like poison ivy. Mavis cornered him with handyman requests every time she saw him.
Still, he wouldn’t let the walking go. “But we have plenty of time before lunch.”
Gertrude rolled her eyes in her mind. Why couldn’t he leave her alone? “Yes, but I also promised to pack a few boxes of clothes for the Church Bazaar. And I wanted to drop them off right after lunch. While I’m out.”
Jerry gave his wife a hug. “Gerty, we have to work on your cholesterol. If you put it off today, promise you’ll join me tomorrow?”
“You know I will. Sorry I overbooked.” With any luck, Gertrude would be substitute teaching tomorrow. She hated to exercise. “Do you mind walking by yourself this morning?”
Jerry sighed. “See you later this afternoon?”
Gertrude accepted his peck on the cheek and shot him a dazzling smile. “Of course, sweetheart. Have fun.”
Once Jerry left, Gertrude got out the boxes for the bazaar. After ten minutes of sorting, she remembered she hadn’t checked her e-mail. The instant she sat down at the computer, her fingers wandered over to the Accessories icon, and within thirty seconds she was deeply involved in a game of Solitaire.
This time, the win wasn’t immediate. An hour and a half later she was dismayed to see she was down over fifteen hundred dollars.
The game was disgusting. There was nothing worthwhile about it. Thank goodness she had only wasted a little time, not real money. Her back hurt and she felt the first tendrils of a headache. Plus, she would have to rush to meet Mavis. The bazaar boxes weren’t finished either.
The days began to assume an awful rhythm. Although she didn’t want to admit it, the game of Solitaire began to consume all of Gertrude’s time. The most undisturbed moments were late at night, after Jerry had fallen into a deep sleep. She would play until her eyes burned so badly the numbers began to blur on the computer screen. Not only did her back ache; in addition, her fingers and toes would go so cold, she could hardly move them. She chastised herself for being so easily captured by the mesmerizing game.
Over and over Gertrude would watch the cards drop into place. She enjoyed Solitaire the most when she had a hard fast run of matching cards. Sometimes she purposefully slowed her pace so she wouldn’t miss anything, but she was at her best when the play was quick. Call it intuition, she thought smugly. When she grew weary and started missing the obvious moves, she vowed to play only five more minutes to get ahead and then go straight to bed.
Long after she was no longer enjoying herself, something kept her at the screen. The Solitaire game seemed to have a soul of its own, sucking her life into its empty frame.
Of course, the later she played, the later she needed to sleep the next morning. And she had to hide it from Jerry. She started turning down substitute teaching, also hiding this from Jerry, letting him think the schools were experiencing less teacher absenteeism. Sometimes, she would get up and kiss him good-bye for one of his consulting jobs, which seemed to be picking up, thank goodness, and go right back to bed. Or, once up, she would play just a little more Solitaire, which always turned into a minimum of one to two hours, and then crawl back into bed.
Gertrude canceled lunches with friends and opted out of other social activities. Eventually only Mavis remained as her one standing commitment; she couldn’t find a reason to discontinue those lunches. None of her friends said anything to her or to Jerry about the birthday and anniversary cards she’d stopped sending after years of never missing a single occasion; but one of their children noticed and called. She apologized profusely and started treating the cards like bills; they had to be done. Not willingly or with joy, but as an intrusion on her time with her Solitaire.
Once in a great while, Gertrude wondered what was to become of her. Was this all her life was worth? Was there no meaning in her life but to play Solitaire? She still went to church on Sundays and participated in the activities Jerry planned, but that was all. She began to hate the Solitaire, but she couldn’t resist Him. At one point she noticed she thought of Solitaire as a male entity, no longer an unidentifiable it. He called to her and she couldn’t refuse. A male siren.
Even at night, after she did manage to escape Him and finally sink into her warm covers, she thought of nothing but the cards dropping into place. King, queen, jack, ten. King, queen, jack, ten. Over and over and over. Red, black, red, black. The cards invaded her dreams for the rest of the night. Every night.
If Jerry’s consulting business hadn’t blossomed, she wouldn’t have been able to fool him. In a way, it was Jerry’s fault, she decided. He taught her the game and now he wasn’t around to protect her. But when he was around, his presence was an intrusion.
One day he came home early to find her glued—at three in the afternoon—to a Solitaire game, unshowered, disheveled, and the house in disarray. Gertrude could almost read the emotions flickering on his face.
“Is this what you’ve been doing all day long? I was worried you were sick and trying to hide it, but you’ve been hiding something else, haven’t you? How many hours a day have you been playing?
Gertrude didn’t answer him.
“Gerty, this has to stop.”
“It’s not like I play all the time. Just today.” She said. “I don’t even like to play.”
“Then, why do you play at all?”
“I only play when I’m bored.”
“Gertrude, you have so many interests. How could you be bored?”
“That’s what I’m saying, I hardly ever play.”
They went round and round without ever resolving the issue. Jerry threatened to take the game off the computer, but he didn’t.
Only to herself would she admit she despised the Solitaire. But she couldn’t stop. He, the Solitaire, wouldn’t let her. She tried, but her finger always found His icon. She, too, thought about taking the Solitaire off the computer, but she was ashamed to be so weak. She couldn’t resist Him. She should be able to do it by herself. She couldn’t talk to Jerry about it. He wouldn’t understand. All through the years, she had been the strong one. And now this. She blamed Jerry, just a little, for introducing her to the Solitaire.
Jerry cut back his consulting to spend more time with his wife. He told her they were still young. They should be traveling, going out to plays, dinners, musicals; all sorts of things. They should be getting fit.
Gertrude was not happy with Jerry’s new schedule. She forced herself to kill the day doing things that hung on her time and foiled her from her Solitaire. She went along with Jerry and, gritting her teeth behind his back, pretended to like all the things he scheduled. But she couldn’t deny the Solitaire.
Gertrude pretended to fall asleep every night when she and Jerry went to bed. She waited until he started his intermittent hiccup-snore. Then she slipped silently out of their bed, down the hall, and into the den. She always closed the door, barely able to suppress the thrill as she approached the Solitaire.
One night she didn’t come back to bed.
Jerry woke at six-thirty in the morning to find Gertrude’s side of the bed empty, except for the pillows she’d bunched in her place.
One of the few times Gertrude was able to leave the throes of the Solitaire was to relieve herself, and then only after long ignoring the signals. On a trip to the bathroom earlier in the night, she set out the breakfast dishes, and on impulse decided she would have bacon and eggs the next morning instead of boring, boring oatmeal. Yes, she would have bacon for breakfast, damn her cholesterol. That was Jerry’s fault, too. It had shot up when he’d retired. How about that for proof? She set out the frying pan, too.
Jerry quietly opened the door to the den and saw the back of his wife, scrunched over the computer screen. The only thing moving was her right hand, clamped upon the mouse. He watched a moment.
“Gertrude,” he began.
Like a cornered raccoon, Gertrude spun around with a feral look. She’d seen the red zigzag’s in her eyes earlier when she’d splashed cold water on her face; she hadn’t looked very pretty in the bathroom mirror.
“How dare you sneak up like that!” she screeched at him. Her eyes stung. Her head thumped. Her back had frozen in place. And her husband was trying to interfere.
“I didn’t sneak up; you just got caught.”
“How dare you spy on me!”
“What are you doing Gertrude?”
“I was going to prepare breakfast for you, but since you weren’t up, I decided to kill a little time, that’s all.” She stood up, defiant.
Gertrude brushed past him into the kitchen, turned on the light, and with a grand sweep of her arm, indicated the set table.
Jerry laughed in her face. “Admit it; you’ve been up all night, haven’t you? You’ve been playing Solitaire for hours!”
“I have not.” Gertrude couldn’t believe she was lying to her husband over something so stupid, but it was his fault after all. And His. They were in it together.
“You’re lying, Gertrude.” His accusation hung in the air.
Gertrude chose a bad path. “I am not.”
“I’m not!” She was screaming now.
Gertrude tried to walk out of the kitchen toward their bedroom, but Jerry caught her arm and stopped her. She struggled, but he didn’t let go.
“How dare you touch me!”
“I’ll call the police. You can’t manhandle me. Let go!”
Jerry did not release her, but forced her to look at him. “Gertrude, you have a problem.”
“You’re the problem!” Gertrude was so mad now, spittle flew in his face. “Let go of me!”
Jerry threw down her arm. “I’ll let you go, all right. You disgust me.”
He started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” A sudden fear clutched Gertrude.
“Away from you.”
“Don’t you walk away from me!”
Jerry pivoted to face her. “I don’t know you anymore. I’ve had it. I’m leaving.” He turned away.
“Jerry, come back!” Gertrude screamed so loud, her teeth shook. What was happening?
Jerry kept walking.
How dare he walk away from her? Gertrude grabbed the cast iron skillet from the top of the stove and followed her husband. When she screamed again for him to stop, and he didn’t, she hit him on the head with the skillet. Just to stop him. Show him he couldn’t walk away from her.
When the ambulance arrived, they took both husband and wife to the emergency room. Gertrude was suffering from shock and Jerry, well, Jerry was dead.
While the police were conducting their investigation, one of the officers noticed the blinking monitor on the computer in the den. An ongoing solitaire game had scored over twenty-five thousand dollars. Someone in the house played with skill. He wrote down the exact figure in his notebook before he turned the computer off.
When it was time for Gertrude’s case to be heard, she waived her chance with a jury for a speedier bench trial. She hung her head and pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. The Judge gave her a chance to speak, but she choked. What was there to say? It was the Solitaire’s fault?
She was sentenced to life imprisonment for ending the life of a man she’d loved for over thirty-five years. As she was led away from the courtroom, she looked back at her lawyer with tears in her eyes.
“Don’t forget. You promised.”
The lawyer nodded his head solemnly in agreement.
A week later, Gertrude received a package from her attorney. In it, she found the deck of cards.
Please note none of the names were changed because there is no one to protect. This is a work of fiction. My husband is alive and well. Just for the record.
If I could harness that hauntingly dedicated attention span to my writing, I’d have a library! (I’m working on it.) ~ JD here.