“Game” is a short story by Donald Barthelme that can be found in his collection Sixty Stories. It’s about two soldiers assigned to monitor a console in an underground bunker, and how they’re affected when they fail to get relieved from the job. Here’s a summary of “Game”.
“Game”: Donald Barthelme Summary
Shotwell plays jacks on the floor for hours near the console, counting the sequences aloud. The narrator would like to play along with him or after him, but Shotwell won’t allow it. When he’s finished he puts the jacks and ball back in his attaché case.
Both men have lived under ground for a hundred thirty-three days and watch the console. They each have a key that is to be inserted if certain readings occur, which will make the bird fly. They’re both armed and are to shoot each other if one acts strangely. It’s not clear what level of strangeness is required.
Each man also has a second pistol. This is the one they would use if they had to, and both men watch carefully when the others hand is near it.
At first, both men were scrupulously normal in behavior and speech. When it became obvious an oversight had occurred and they wouldn’t be relieved, they relaxed. They redefined what it meant to be normal in The Agreement. They eat and sleep at their own discretion and only one has to watch the console. It the bird flies, one will wake the other to turn their key. This would result in a slight delay, but they don’t care. Rank is put aside, which was generous of Shotwell because he’s a captain.
When The Agreement was signed, Shotwell started playing jacks. The narrator started writing descriptions of natural forms—shells, leaves, animals—on the walls.
Shotwell also works on a business course from the University of Wisconsin. He reads a marketing book and makes notes while watching the narrator’s second pistol. The narrator can’t remember if they’re in Utah, Montana or Idaho.
“Game” by Donald Barthelme Summary, Cont’d
Maybe it’s the plan for them to stay permanently or for a set amount of time unknown to them. Perhaps their behavior is being observed, like an experiment. They eat frozen enchiladas and devil’s food cake. They don’t sleep well, Shotwell in particular, who screams and weeps. While one man sleeps his partner tries to pick the lock on the other’s attaché case—the narrator to get the jacks and Shotwell to get the pistol.
The narrator’s descriptions of natural forms covers the whole south concrete wall, scratched into it with a diamond that was for Lucy. He included a description of the baseball bat, running to 4,500 words, although it’s not natural. This writing behavior is strange, but so is Shotwell’s jacks playing. Both men have tried stretching out their arms to cover the distance between the locks on their own, but they can’t.
Shotwell isn’t himself; he’s up to something related to the keys and locks. He seems to be handling the situation better—he watches the console, studies his book and bounces the ball. The narrator also has something in mind and isn’t well.
They don’t know which city the bird targets. They’re just supposed to monitor the console and turn the keys, if necessary. Shotwell bounces the ball and counts the sequences. The narrator aches to get his hands on the jacks.
Sometimes when they can’t sleep, they rock each other and sing. At these moments, he understands what Shotwell wants him to do with their keys. He’ll only do it if he gets a turn with the jacks. That is fair. The narrator isn’t well.
I hope this “Game” by Donald Barthelme summary was helpful.