Doctor Who vs Hydra

This was written in response to the online “furor” over Marvel’s decision to write Captain America as a secret member of Hydra. As with every other comic book controversy ever, these things seem increasingly petty after a few minutes/days/weeks/months of consideration. 


“Doctor’s Log, Stardate… Oh what is a ‘star date’ anyway?” the Doctor asked no one in particular as he flipped levers on the TARDIS console.

“Doctor,” Clara began, her dark eyebrows furrowed.

“Clara!” he said in a startle, as if he had forgotten she had been standing there. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “Clara. The place: Mutter’s Spiral, Earth, America. The year: 2016. The subject: Doom.”

“Oh boy, here we go,” she replied, still incredulous.

“Boy or no boy,” he said “my instruments detect a great cataclysm in 2016 caused by-” he dropped his hands and paused to glance at the console again, “-comic books!”

Clara cocked an eyebrow and pursed her lips. “Are you certain, Doctor?”

“Well,” he began “we all know that the collapse of the first great human empire began in 2016-”

“We don’t know that,” Clara interjected, matter-of-factly.

“And,” the Doctor continued, unimpeded, “all the periodicals at the time mention this ‘Captain America’ betraying his allegiance to the American people!”

“You know, Doctor,” Clara said as she started to pace. “I probably don’t keep up with American politics as much as I should but I’m pretty certain there is an important election going on in 2016-”

“Nonsense,” the Doctor said. “Look, this blog here, and blogs never lie, claims that, somehow, this comic book event caused a rift in the space-time continuum which traveled back to the time of the Captain’s inception, during the Second World War, and retroactively offended not only the people he initially defended, but modern day comic book fans, who will, in turn, destroy civilization as you know it!”

“I am completely lost,” said Clara.

“As am I,” said the Doctor, “but the answers to our questions lie in Poland. The year: 1944.”

“Oh no, Doctor,” Clara said, her wide eyes even wider. “You can’t.”

“Oh I can, Clara,” he said. “We’re already there.”

The Doctor strode over to the TARDIS console and adjusted the scanner’s viewscreen to face them. Clara could already see that they were in a prison yard.

“We can’t go out there, Doctor,” she said. “We’ll be killed.”

“Oh, Clara,” the Doctor said. He smiled. “I’ve enclosed the TARDIS in a static warp bubble. Everything outside it will be time locked. Hopefully, we’ve caught someone and we’ll pop out and ask them a question.”

“I should be used to this,” Clara said, “but this might be just about the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

The Doctor paid her no heed. He pointed at the screen. “There,” he said. “Right there. That confused looking fellow. He’s the one.”

Clara frowned. She stared at the screen. Her hair flew as she whipped her head up to face him. “Let’s go then. Let’s do this horrible thing so I can get to work on never forgiving you.”

“After you,” the Doctor said, deadpan, as he extended his right arm towards the opening TARDIS doors.

They marched outside.

There stood, not ten yards from the TARDIS door, more of a skeleton than a man. His head was shaved. He spoke.

“Am I dead?”

Clara and the Doctor stopped in front of him. Their voices were muffled by the warp shell, as if they were speaking under a thick blanket. They stood facing him. A single tear escaped Clara’s left eye. The Doctor spoke first.

“It depends,” he said. “Is your name Vladek?”

“Yes,” the man replied. “Now answer me.”

“Oh, you’re dead, but not in this time,” the Doctor said. “Not for decades.”

“Hrm.” Vladek stared. “This is not comforting. What is that thing?” He pointed at the TARDIS. “You don’t sound German.”

The Doctor ignored the first question. “Gallifreyan,” he said.

“He’s Scottish,” Clara said. She sniffed and wiped her face.

“I am dreaming then,” Vladek said. “So, what is your purpose?”

The Doctor reached inside his coat and pulled out a battered comic book. On the front, Vladek could see what looked like a man in a blue uniform punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

“Do you know what this is?” the Doctor asked.

“A pulp.” Vladek said. “A funny book. What of it?”

“Well, since you’re dreaming, dream this: in the future, this character,” the Doctor tapped the cover with the long, thin fingers of his right hand “isn’t punching Hitler anymore. He’s a bad guy.”

“I see,” Vladek said. “Even asleep, I am too hungry to care about this. Let us dream about food.”

“He’s right, Doctor,” Clara said. “Even you can’t be cruel enough to deny him a meal.”

The Doctor frowned. “A meal will kill him.” He stuck the comic under his arm, reached into his coat again, and pulled out a Hershey bar. He extended this offering towards Vladek. “You’d do well to save half of that for later.”

Vladek shuffled forward and took the chocolate. “I think I know what is well to do,” he said. Still, he snapped the bar in half before he began to unwrap it.

The Doctor stood, silently, and watched him consume it. Clara turned away and stared at the white sign on the TARDIS door. She repeatedly ran her eyes over the message.

Advice & Assistance
Obtainable Immediately

Assistance

“Damn it all,” she whispered.

Vladek put the last piece in his mouth and chewed. He sucked a bit of chocolate from his thumb.

“Now,” he said, “I am not so sure I am dreaming. Perhaps I’ve gone mad.”

Clara turned to face him. “No,” she said. She jerked her fist toward the Doctor, thumb extended. “He’s the mad one.”

“Nevertheless,” the Doctor said, “we still don’t have an answer to our question. So, what is it, Vladdy? If this cartoon decides, someday, that he doesn’t want to punch old Mr. Mustache, what then?”

“How is this a concern?” Vladek said, already more animated from the rush of sugar. “These are things for children. Where is my family? Where is my wife?”

“She will be safe, eventually. In most respects,” he replied.

“You are a devil,” Vladek said, “to bring me treats and taunt me with this,” he flapped both hands towards the Doctor, “this!”

“You’re not wrong,” Clara said.

The Doctor cut his eyes at Clara and back to Vladek. “If this character is a hero to some people like you, someday, aren’t you offended-”

“Everything is offensive!” Vladek shouted. He started to pace. “The Germans are offensive. This place is offensive. Life is offensive. You are offensive.”

“Doctor,” Clara began. She put her hand on his shoulder and stepped towards Vladek. “Vladek. Do you think that people should be able to write what they want?”

He sighed, long and hard. “This life,” he said out loud, but to himself. He ran his hands over the stubble on his scalp. “Yes,” he said. “The people who censor, we know what they do.”

“Yes, but,” she said, “if someone wishes to be offended, even over something as silly as a comic book, they may write that too?”

Vladek laughed, short and hoarse. “Yes, if that’s how they want to waste their time.” He smiled with his mouth only. His eyes glared and remained hard. “Maybe I will write a comic book about how stupid they are.”

“No, that’s your son,” the Doctor said.

“What?” Vladek said. “I have no son.”

“Not yet,” the Doctor said. “Not yet.”

Clara inhaled slowly and deeply. “Doctor, we read that at Coal Hill. Art-”

“I think we’re done here, Clara,” the Doctor said. He wheeled around, his coat flaring, and started towards the TARDIS doors.

“But, what about-” she started, her hands extended towards Vladek.

He stopped inside the threshold and turned around. “He’ll remember, but he won’t say anything. He’s a smart guy.”

Vladek stared at the Doctor. “You play with us, devil. You play with our misfortune. I will tell people that.”

“And you may,” the Doctor said, “for that is the sad truth.”

He disappeared inside the TARDIS, which began wheezing and moaning seemingly faster than the Doctor could have reached the console from the door.

Clara stepped quickly towards the door and paused just inside. She gripped the door facing and turned her head towards Vladek. “It gets better,” she said, her voice raised over the din.

“The devil’s escort,” he said, smiling for real now. He raised his hand, still gripping half of the Hershey bar. “No, you are an angel. Goodbye, angel. Tell God he has some explaining to do.”

She looked at him, silently, for as long as she dare during the liftoff sequence, and slowly shut the door.

“Oh, I would,” she said quietly, to herself and the back of the door. “I would.”

“Talking to yourself again, Clara?” the Doctor said without looking up from the console.

She approached him quickly, her feet hitting the deck fast and hard. She stopped, her face inches from his. “I’m a teacher, you know. Next time you need a historical opinion so you can win a Facebook argument, you could ask me instead of traumatizing everyone involved.”

“Oh Clara,” the Doctor said. “What do I need a time and space machine for if I’m just going to stand around and talk to you all day?”

“What, indeed,” she said. “Take me back to Coal Hill. I have a good idea for a lesson on free speech.”

“Do you have any conclusions, Miss Oswald?” the Doctor asked. He smiled in that mischievous way she simultaneously loved and hated.

“Other than the fact that you probably are a devil, no,” she said. “I’ll present all facts and allow the students to decide.”

“Well!” the Doctor said. He had already pulled out his smartphone and situated it close enough to his face for his breath to fog the screen. “That isn’t going to help me compose this blasted tweet!”

For I Have No Voice and I Must Complain

There was a time when I was beating my head against the brick wall of Capitalism full force. I had to imagine, as someone once told me, that it was slowly crumbling on the other side, but the reality of the situation is that there is an army of people over there with bricks and mortar as far as the eye can see, shoring it up. One person is not a movement.

I learned quite a bit in my years of being a labor vigilante. I can’t say “organizer” because I didn’t succeed in organizing anything. Maybe I was an activist. I wrote emails and made phone calls. I dropped off literature. I was mostly ignored because I live in a “right-to-work” state. This was confirmed by the fact that, when I could find people who would talk to me (the IWW was the best about communicating), they were absolutely terrified about what I was trying to do. I remember one guy specifically who told me to “delete everything” and protect myself. While I was protected by Federal law, I didn’t have a lot of recourse if I was fired, other than an expensive court battle.

He said that “you are at war now. It will never be over,” and although I feel that I have surrendered in a way, he was correct. It’s never over when you’ve given up and you’re living under occupation. If you don’t win, and you don’t die, you’re enslaved.

I know that I didn’t just worry strangers in more labor-friendly states. My friends and family began to stage a sort of intervention. I love them for that, because while I do care about my fellow workers, I was also throwing myself into a meat grinder without much support or chance of success. I was surrounded by people who were sympathetic but afraid. They had bills to pay. They had families.

It was also a self-serving action on many fronts. Here I was, a guy who had worked retail for years. I’d finally graduated college and I felt like I had nothing to show for it. The “recovery” after the Great Recession wasn’t an actual recovery for many, and this was where the whole “angry millennial” meme began. Welcome to the Dystopian Present. The precursor to climate change disaster Mad Max. When were we, as Americans, ever faced with so little hope? I guess apocalypse always loomed, whether it was the great wars of the 20th century or the specter of nukes falling, but the new assessment seems different. More final. When there’s a famine coming at the end of the century that no one seems to be trying to avert, I don’t have much hope for anything.

Over the course of my life I recall this idea of “progress”, that the human race was marching towards something better. As the years have dragged on those Star Trek dreams have been wrecked. The seemingly endless prosperity of the 1990s led to the Forever War of the 2000s onward. The current political climate doesn’t help, but that’s something I refuse to comment on other than making shitty jokes.

Maybe this is just my American mind getting a taste of Globalization. It’s always been pretty shitty everywhere, for most folks. Now that we’re getting a taste of toiling away our entire lives for not much gain, which has been the human experience forever, we’re recoiling in horror. All the more reason to try to improve life for everyone.

Here is the worst thing, though, for us who work to keep ourselves housed and fed and clothed: the same system that eats the world, and tells us we have to as well, calls us shitty losers for supporting it. It’s the abusive cycle of a brute who comes home every night punches his wife in the face and calls her cooking shit and tells her that no one else will ever love her. The company would pay you as little as it could, but it pays you this much because it has to. Love us or we’ll move overseas where we can really have fun!

Some of you are proud of a job well done because it is ingrained in you. Call it Protestant Work Ethic or whatever you want. I love working with you because you carry me when I am down. There is still plenty of that in me, but it’s crushed every time I’m treated unfairly. It gets choked out every time someone tells me they were forced to attend a meeting without pay, or that their company is dodging overtime with loopholes.

They abuse it. They schedule you for breaks you don’t have. They understaff you and then some, until the Skeleton Crew isn’t even a skeleton anymore, just a heap of discarded mismatched bones. Then, something happens. Your frustration turns you on the customers. The customers get frustrated by slowness or inaccuracy and turn on you.

There’s something I tried to impress on restaurant workers for a long time, when I was agitating. I talked to some workers who were being forced to attend meetings without pay. They were also woefully understaffed and they told me that they were sabotaging orders. This flies in the face of unity because those customers are workers too. They’re retail employees, cooks, teachers, nurses, gas station attendants, spending their hard earned dollar on a night out and you’re ruining it because some rich fuck won’t spend more on payroll? I turned it around. I said “if you’re going to harm someone, take it the other direction. Maybe they ordered the 6 oz. steak. Oops. Now it’s 12.” I can tell you right now that it didn’t work. Shit always rolls downhill.

And this! This is the frustration. That we are impotent. We literally cannot do anything in these states where, by law, we are hampered in our actions to organize. What are our options? Sure, go back to college. Again? Fuck. Please check and make sure you are in a field that almost guarantees employment. Nursing is hot right now, and probably always will be. Be prepared to get thousands of dollars more in debt, and work to support yourself while doing it. I will shit on universities all day for being life-mangling debt mills that leave people working at Starbucks with their fancy diploma, but there’s still value to an education, especially where professional skills are required. Tech is still doing well. Don’t forget the trades! We will always need electricians and plumbers.

Until then though? Until you slog through life with whatever action plan, until you make it as that actress or writer, until you land a job with a big airline, until you get your alternate teaching certification, until your adjunct faculty job turns into full-time, until you die ten minutes after putting together your last crunch-wrap-supreme, until then, what? Rage until your heart explodes? We can’t all get fired having a strike in a state where those are illegal.

This has been brewing inside me for a while now. We need a sign. Not a flag or a banner or a button or a pin. We need something we can put anywhere, any time. A symbol that no one else uses. A symbol of distress and protest. A symbol that lets other people know the situation without flying a red banner or telling our boss to go fuck themselves.

For example, there’s a debate, constantly, about how late you should enter a business that is about to close for the night. I mean, heck, if their hours say “open until 9pm” then you should expect service until 9, right? Some people even expect that if they make it in the door, olly-olly-oxenfree, they should be able to hang out as long as they want. In a perfect world I would agree with this.

Thing is, you have a shift that should be staffed with three that’s only staffed with two. Or one. Maybe it’s as simple as a flu outbreak or as complicated as one guy just got done working from 5 am to 2 pm at his OTHER job, because no one pays enough for people to get by on just one job, and came in to close the shop here, at his second job, and he’s physically exhausted. Maybe the other employee is a single mother working her way through college who didn’t sleep last night because the toddler kept her up. Maybe they’re not even allowed to put out a tip jar. Maybe they’d be out of there by 9:30 pm but your church youth group is going to have them there until 11. Hell, they’re getting paid, right? Maybe. Depends on where they work. Maybe they’re in overtime and they “had to” clock out because someone impressed that upon them.

Maybe you’re at a restaurant and the staff has had to endure multiple unpaid staff meetings. Maybe you’re at a clothing store and the person assisting you is off the clock because they’ve worked over forty hours and the company wants to dodge overtime by giving them comp time next week. Maybe the person finding your book for you has had so many missed breaks over the years that their company owes them thousands of dollars. Maybe you’re just an Intern! Maybe you’re salaried but you don’t even fit the legal description of a supervisor and are owed overtime. Maybe you’re given “special projects” to do, unpaid, at home. Maybe you can’t get your work done in the office because of bad staffing so you take it home with you. Maybe people on your floor are FUCKING DYING because there aren’t enough nurses.

What if there were a way to communicate to our customers, our coworkers, our students and our faculty, our patients, that we are in distress and we have no voice? That we cannot organize or better the situation? How can we communicate, at least communicate, to our fellow humans, that we are not being compensated. That we are understaffed, sometimes dangerously understaffed depending on occupation. That we are a door-to-door salesman that hates their job but has to pay child support? That we are shoving this credit card application down your throat because we’ve been threatened with unemployment and we weep at home because we thought we stood for something but you need to know that we don’t mean it when we say you’re going to get all these “benefits”.

How can we communicate that we want to teach your kids to be creative and curious and not practice for tests all day every day but we have to?

A symbol is something anyone can do. They don’t need special tools. Any object that will make a mark, and a surface. Chalk or marker to board, pen or pencil to paper. You don’t have to wear it. You wouldn’t want to because this situation is caused by lack of power. I have had the worst time organizing people because they are afraid of losing something.

There’s something that people do as a sign of distress all over the world. If it is discernible, they fly their flag upside-down. If it’s the same either way, they tie it in a knot.

What if there were a way to tell people “I’m doing the best I can but the system has me under duress. I want to improve things but I cannot because of my station,” but without the flag?

Some sort of Peace Sign for oppressed labor.

I’m not a graphic designer, but to me what is most striking is a backwards dollar sign.

It’s not in ASCII code so it can’t be typed. It would give corporate types fits trying to include it in emails. I’ve seen those warning emails. “Starbucks union may be in town! WATCH OUT!”

It’s not hard to draw. It can be put anywhere. A post-it. Receipt paper. Easy to create, conceal, destroy.

The thing about a symbol is that it has to be free and people have to use it. Well, as far as I can tell, this one doesn’t currently carry meaning. I’m not up to boiling this down into meme format.

We all still have to work. We have to interact with other humans who tell us not to be proud. We are forced to do things we don’t want to do in situations we’d rather not be in because we have to feed ourselves and our families.

If you can’t wear a union pin, maybe, at least, you could scrawl that somewhere by your register, or on that paper tablecloth.

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s like entering “sad face” on the latest clickbait.

As a “help me” and a “fuck them” and an “I’m sorry” all rolled into one, though, I think it could work.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Hot Pocket.

The sea was angry that day, my friends…

I’ve written some of this down before, but it’s been lost to the Internet and time.

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Six months before my father died, we were in Alaska. For some reason he’d gotten a wild hair and decided that he and his boys were going to journey to the Last Frontier and do some fishing. Dad was in the best health he’d experienced since his first hospitalization in 2008, so it was now or never. He, Blake, and I flew from Memphis, Tennessee, to Minneapolis/St. Paul, then we boarded a smaller plane to Anchorage. We arrived, exhausted, and he rented a Chevy Suburban that barely fit through the spiraled airport parking deck ramp. Then we drove for hours, because Alaska is fucking huge.

40429_10150241434875424_399266_nAt the time, I was freshly single and in a mental place I don’t want to fully dissect here. I am not sure if pre-grief is a thing, but since my father’s initial illness, I had been in a sort of malaise about his future, and mine, and what it meant to potentially lose a parent. I made all sorts of wacky decisions in this fugue state that I’m just starting to come to terms with. I flailed around, hurt a lot of people, and spread wreckage over the years before and after his death.

In 2010, I was still wearing my battered cowboy hat and gripping Hemingway, attempting to tame the bronco of life. Obviously, especially to those who know me well, my hubris knows no bounds, but that’s a story for another time.

39940_10150241434785424_1418735_n

It was an overcast day in early August when my father, my brother, and I boarded the Tia Rose to do some deep sea fishing. The old men around seemed to be, if not shocked, then at least a bit curious that the captain was a woman. I will never forget my father asking her permission to come aboard. Always the gentleman, I think he must have had the etiquette book memorized. We were about to set sail with a bunch of wealthy greyhairs and some rowdy teenage deckhands. This was an adventure.

40061_10150241436455424_4317034_nWe set out into the bay, and pretty much immediately my brother and I started having what I’ve always referred to as “the regrets.” I’d heard people speak colloquially about turning green but until that moment I wasn’t aware that it literally happened. I had popped a couple of Dramamine before the trip, but it was no use. Blake was on the back deck puking into one five gallon bucket while sitting on another. I kept looking at the horizon but I felt the illness coming on as well.

By the time we got to the first fishing spot a couple of hours later, we were absolute wrecks. The retirees were all either immune to motion sickness or had scopolamine patches behind their ears. I’d never heard of this magic before, and I’ve never left on a journey without it since. At the time, however, I was experiencing something that rivaled one of my worst hangovers.

38950_10150241436625424_1271772_nWe were barfing everywhere. We upchucked over the side and onto the deck. Dad was visibly shaken by all this and he began to apologize repeatedly. Did we fish? I remember at least two attempts. The first time we were bobbing heavy weights off the bottom of the ocean floor. The old men seemed to be having a great time and I, the guy who could do fifty push-ups, could hardly move it. I got my line all tangled pretty much immediately and a deck hand gave me another. I surrendered about two minutes after that.

The second time, the captain herself had gone to the back of the boat, hooked a fish, and yelled for me to come back and haul it in. I did it, and as soon as I got it in I handed the pole away and vomited over the side. I’m pretty sure Blake puked on someone’s fish as they pulled it in. This may have been after the captain had cut up a pineapple, which she claimed was an old sailor’s remedy for seasickness. It worked, miraculously, for about thirty seconds, then here came the pineapple express. Dad exclaimed what an amazing cure it was while I simultaneously messed up the cabin floor.

A bit later, the guys were all at the back fishing. I looked out the back cabin door as the bow of the ship pitched up, and there was a commotion at the stern. “Whale!” someone shouted. The old men fumbled for their cameras.

A black hump surfaced, close enough that someone could have touched it with a pole. I don’t know how we didn’t hit it. There was no way I could have gotten my shitty Blackberry knock-off Samsung out of my pocket in time, and I’m glad I didn’t try. A wave lifted the boat into a steep incline and I stood at the top, my view unimpeded above the fishermen’s heads. The whale slid up and then down, as if to say hello, and my father’s voice rang out.

“Bobby, did you see it?”

Yeah, Dad. I did.

40109_10150241436935424_4799088_nThe captain said it was a right whale. She wheeled the boat back around to see if it would pop out again, but it didn’t. I spent the rest of the ride staring at the horizon from the back deck, a seasickness-prevention trick I’d learned from a Hemingway story. I stood out there and shivered for hours, but it worked.

39036_10150241436825424_5380304_nThe deck hands cleaned the fish behind me as we sailed on through what might have been a pleasantly cool day on land. It seemed like eternity, however, as I rocked over the unforgiving damp. I finally stopped keeping track of time and locked my eyes on the dark line above the sea. It eventually grew into looming cliffs. We sailed along side them as thousands of white gulls peeled off to greet us. I am solidly agnostic, but I remember saying to myself, “God lives in Alaska.”

I turned to my left and Blake and Dad were seated in a booth on the other side of the cabin glass. Blake’s head was down on the table, and Dad put his arm around him and stroked his hair. He ran his hand through it over and over, which was something I’d never seen him do. It was the same thing I did to Dad as he slept in his hospital bed. It is the same thing I do, now, when I hold my children.

I looked up at the cliffs. Here lies eternity.

39036_10150241436820424_3414561_nThere is something to be found out there in the wild, whether it is God or Earth or Nature or Life. The Universe. The carelessness of Nothing, but it’s something. You can read about that shit in your History of Ecology textbook, you know. Bust out some Thoreau. I am nothing if not an unoriginal bastard, so I admit that I am not breaking new ground here. Maybe you’ve had a tingle on a camping trip. Maybe you saw the face of God while summiting Denali.

38950_10150241436630424_6967417_nI don’t have any answers for you. The cliffs had none for me. All I can do is tell you what happened. The sea was angry that day, my friends. The bay was quiet. We were there. Now some of us aren’t.

If I were a moral of the story guy I’d tell you to set your jaw and stare at the horizon. That’s as good a line as any. It’s tempting to do that, to the cliffs and the birds. To set a screen on it. To capture the whale. To make it mean something.

Though, as Freud is accused of saying, sometimes a whale is just a whale, and the deep is just the deep.

Thanks, Sigmund. Thanks, Henry. Thanks, Ernie.

Thanks, Dad.

Rust in Peace

I saw what was arguably the best iteration of Megadeth, featuring Marty Friedman and Nick Menza, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1990s. It was a brutal, rib crushing affair. I hung onto the fence up front for 3/4 of the show, right in front of Dave Mustaine, until I absolutely couldn’t take it anymore. I was in pain for days. It was worth it.

There are two totems from that show that I have carried with me every day for almost twenty years. In my wallet, there is a guitar pick that has Nick Menza’s signature stenciled on it. He threw those out into the crowd after he had run out of drum sticks to toss. This didn’t make sense to me at the time until one of my friends pointed out how expensive drum sticks are, and how cheap picks are. For a guy who was supposed to be so fucking smart I often didn’t put two and two together until I opened my mouth and said something stupid.

The other artifact, a black plastic bottle opener keychain, was handed to me by Marty Friedman on Beale Street before the show with a “here you go.” Little aloof Bobby Talbot didn’t even know what had happened until it was over.  My friends laughed at me and told me who had just given it to me. I put it on my keychain and it has been there every day since. It has traveled the world with me. It has opened hundreds of beers. I have walked thousands of miles with it jingling along in my pocket.

This story was a part of my party repertoire for years afterwards, and I finally stopped telling it about five years ago when instead of “fucking cool!” or laughter it received cocked eyebrows and cold stares. The world had moved on.

The world moves on again, today, without Nick Menza, who collapsed and subsequently died on stage at age 51.

I never met Nick Menza. I stood 15 feet in front of him and watched him play the drums. I carried a bit of plastic that he had mass produced for fans. I enjoyed his particular era of Megadeth music.

Someone who knows more than me recently said that every time someone dies he’s a bit pissed off by fans who pour out adulation after it’s too late. A corpse can’t enjoy the thrill of having someone love them. I am guilty of this here, I admit, because I haven’t thought about Mr. Menza in months.

I am 37.5 years old. Every time I read an article or open the obituaries, my mind does the morbid math of “how long.” How old would my kids be? How many years do I have? I try to shove that aside, because for all I know it will be five minutes from now. I keep doing those push-ups. I skip McDonald’s. I check for lumps. I look for reasons. How many drugs did he do? Let me pull the blanket of excuses and blame back over myself. Let me think of Jane Little, age 87, who died on stage playing bass with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Wouldn’t that be nice. Poetic. Beautiful. Fifty more years. Push down Nick (51). Shove down Dad (58).

I cannot tell you how many slow work days I’ve spent gazing into dusty shelves considering the people I knew who went before me, into that “great unknown mystery.” I try to comfort myself with strange philosophies. Maybe consciousness is just a meat-computer status report. Perhaps it’s a trick. Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it serious. Life’s too mysterious.

You work, you save, you worry so,
but you can’t take your dough
when you go, go, go.

None of this is comforting to Nick Menza.

Here’s the deal:

My good friend Scott, who has taught me much, once suggested that thanking people is one of the things we can do to improve our life and theirs. Just thanking people. It seems simple but really, as I have begun to travel the world to see my heroes, people who entertained me or occupied my mind when it needed distraction, a thank you has never been rejected. In fact, it has almost always been received with great enthusiasm.

Not long ago, Gina and I walked by an autograph table in New Orleans and saw Edward James Olmos seated, fiddling with his smartphone. He was alone except for his handler. I walked up to his assistant and said, “Hey, can I just say hello real quick?” This isn’t always kosher at conventions.

“Sure!” she said. “Go for it.”

So I did.

I approached him (holy shit), said hello, and we shook hands. Then, I launched into a short, arm-flailing, animated speech that went something like “Oh wow, Battlestar Galactica. I wanted to tell you that it’s rare, so rare, when watching a television show, that I am so moved that I stand up, out of my seat and cheer arms raised,” at this point I raised my fists in the air, “and I wanted to thank you for that. Thank you.”

He seemed genuinely pleased. His arm was in a sling so I asked about that. He had dislocated his shoulder. I asked him if he was okay, and we had a short conversation about his arm. I wished him well. He wished me well, and that was that.

As simple as that was, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Right behind having my two kids and marrying Gina, that one is up there with winning the high school band competition at Universal Studios, Florida, when I was a teenager, or flying to London to meet Tom Baker.

I hate to give out advice because I am terrible at it, and I don’t like to draw conclusions about life because there aren’t any, but I have made it a point to tell people what they mean to me. If I can’t see them in person I write them a letter. This is my letter to Nick, post-mortem, unfortunately, because I do not see all, but I will do better.

I am sorry that you are dead, Nick Menza, but you are not forgotten. As long as I breathe there will be a bit of plastic with me that was once, briefly, yours, nestled in my wallet next to the four-leafed clover, which is taped to a playing card, that I have carried with me since I was 12.

It’s the least I can do.

Nick Menza

Oh-Oh Here She Comes

“Tell me a story, Grandpa.”

“Oh I have one for you. It’s a doozy, but you have to sit very still and make yourself as small as possible.”

“Okay,” the boy said. He squatted to the floor of the hut and scrunched himself up into a tight ball.

“I think you’re about old enough for this one,” the old man said. He winked, cleared his throat, and began.

“Once upon a time, when there were countries, the greatest one was called the United States of America. They said ‘United States’ because it was a union of states from sea to shining sea, a ‘state’ being a government. Their governments made their laws, and the One Big Government made its laws, and, well, this is the boring stuff-”

“No, go on Grandpa,” said the boy. “I want to hear this one.”

The boy lost balance and rocked around a bit before coming to a stop, still squeezed into an eerily compact little-boy-sphere.

“Okay sonny,” he said. “Don’t get too excited. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, they had laws and lawmakers and lawyers and they liked to yell all day about things, but they weren’t always the most important things. In fact, as time went on, they got sillier and sillier. For example, they would fight over where people could go to the bathroom.”

“What, like in the hut or outside?” the boy asked.

“Oh no sonny,” the old man said, “this isn’t France I’m talking about. They fought over which facility people could use. They had the holes marked, Men, Woman, sometimes Family, Unisex, and nobody agreed on who needed to go where. They didn’t have the one like we do here.”

“Wow,” the boy said, his eyes wide.

“Yep. And all the while people were killing each other, but not the way you think. Statistically (that means a fact that you learn by counting, by the way), maybe one out of a hundred people ever died by violence directly, but they were poisoning the water. They poisoned the land and the air. They did this, mainly, to make money, er, barter. You know, things to trade. But most of them thought they had to! That’s the real kicker. They just accepted it as the way things go that you have to drain a lake to sell the water, or dump mercury in the soil to make tools.”

“Gosh,” the boy said. He squeezed himself even tighter, his brow furrowed.

“Mhm. Greed is a wickedness inside us all, that’s for damned sure. We’re all selfish. We all want to live, but that drive does something to us when we’ve achieved all we need to. It makes us want to do more. It’s a useful tool but it also lies. It lies and tells us the barter our mother gave us was ours all along. It lies and tells us that the fortunes we were blessed with were created by our sheer will. As if we could concentrate a turnip bigger. As if we could wish a fish. And we know you can’t do that.”

“I’d like to see a fish,” said the boy. “Maybe a red fish or a blue fish. Or one with a star!”

The old man inhaled deeply through his nose and stared past the boy for half a minute. He worked his jaw as his eyes searched back and forth on the low ceiling, as if some answer lay there. He forged on.

“The earth had always given signs, which some heeded, but most didn’t. People even argued whether they had the capacity to change things at all. Some said it was inevitable, that the earth got hot on its own. Some said it was people and their smoke. Either way, it didn’t matter. No one changed anything. Or not enough did, anyway. Hell, most couldn’t. A man starving in a crumbling city can’t tell a rich man how much oil to burn. Some did yell. Most just tried to live. Like we’ve always tried to live.”

The boy was as a small boulder. His breaths were imperceptible. When was the last time he had blinked?

The old man’s throat was already dry. His heart thudded in his ears.

“I was a young man when they hired the new boss, same as the old boss. They weren’t any worse a leader than there was before, but they were bad enough, and at the worst time. People were too busy being tricked into doing nothing to do anything about it anyway.”

“What do you mean?” the boy said low, just above a whisper.

“I mean they had things to do, like in your books. There were machines in the city that did things, wonderful things. You could talk to someone on the other side of the earth. You could even carry a thing in your pocket that contained the collective knowledge of humankind! People could have used these things for great good but instead they mainly used it to show each other what they were eating, or what their children looked like, or even to tell each other to kill themselves.”

“Wow,” said the boy, his eyes wide. “Why would someone do that?”

“Oh sonny,” the old man said. “It was so much worse than that. While people were being stoned to death and chopped to pieces, people on their damned machines were too busy complaining about the exploits of their favorite rich people. Or worse yet, complaining about the Spreading.”

“The Spreading?” the boy asked.

“Yes, sonny. The Man Spreading. Apparently mankind was taking up too much room on the earth, but people weren’t concerned about that. They were concerned that when one man sits, he sits too wide. Too big. He spreads himself all over the place and no one has room to sit anywhere!”

“Is that why?” the boy said. He rocked a bit, still spherical.

“Yes,” the old man said. He smiled and nodded. “We squeeze now, the Mansqueeze, to pay homage to our ancestors. Those who lived before the great deluge. Those great idiots who wouldn’t heed the warnings. Those loud, human idiots who we cannot blame, no we cannot, because it’s our nature to complain. Our ritual is now that all men will squeeze in low huts until humanity breathes its last breath. While the women walk among us, firm and wide, so wide, wider than ever before-”

“Dad?” A familiar yet higher voice asked from outside the cloth hut.

“-so big and huge and loud and we must squeeze so small-”

The boy giggled. The roof of the hut was ripped off violently.

“Dad what are you guys doing to my couch?”

“We can’t even spread out on an empty bus!” the old man cried before bursting into peals of laughter. “Oh come on, Karen!”

“Dammit, Dad. I’m never letting you babysit again,” Karen said. She tossed the couch cushion back at her father.

“Aww!” the boy said.

The old man couldn’t stop giggling from underneath the cushion, but Karen could just make out “the matriarchy” between gasps.

Just Because

I know that I’ve been careless when I’ve gotten introspective in the past. Memories are malleable and mushy. Every time we go back to touch them we break something, or add something, and before long, if we’re not careful (and sometimes even if we are), we end up with something quite removed from what we started with.

That being said, I’m pretty sure I learned about death when Mr. Hooper died.

If you were a kid my age you grew up watching Sesame Street. You may have also watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or reruns of Romper Room or The Electric Company, and those were good shows, but in my time, Sesame Street was the place we were always trying to get. If we happened upon one of those old metal garbage cans, Oscar was in there. Where was Sesame Street? New York City, of course. It was actually there and I imagined that if I went there and turned some corner in Hell’s Kitchen, I’d be met with friendly faces and Muppets.

Mr. Hooper ran the corner store on that fabled street. Will Lee was the actor who had played him since 1969, and he had been one of the people blacklisted as a Communist during the red scare of the 1950s. He died of a heart attack on December 7, 1982, a day after my little sister was born. Instead of sweeping his absence under the rug they hit it head on, albeit almost a year later, during an episode which aired on November 24, 1983, a day after my fifth birthday.

I don’t know if I saw it at the time, and I don’t want to squeeze the Play-Doh of my mind too hard lest I dent it even more, but I must have. I remember kids talking about it on the playground. Still, that’s not the moment that sticks with me. It may or may not have been the spark, but Cyndi Lauper was the fire.

MTV was very much a part of life in those days, just as much as YouTube or Facebook is now. We old folks tell tales of a time when videos played all day and from dusk ’til dawn and that’s the place I’m taking you, fellow traveler. Again, it cannot have been the case, but it seemed like our television was always on that channel. Of course, there were a slew of terrible music videos at the time, but there were also loads that we thought of as high art. I recall having significant emotional responses to them, as they seemed to represent important concepts, especially to a little kid. Adventure. Romance. Loss.

Sometime in 1984, my brother and sister and I were riding in the car with Mom, about right here. I do remember that, distinctly. “Time after Time” was playing on the radio and I began to feel a growing heaviness in my chest. It was an emptiness I’d never experienced before. Through hindsight goggles I clearly identify it as grief, but at the time I was afraid. Then, I looked up from the back seat and asked Mom when she was going to die.

She laughed a little, probably a bit surprised, and told me that she wasn’t going to die for a long, long time. Not anytime soon. I calmed down shortly and my mental film reel ends there, in the fog between Tulot and the Trumann city limits.

And then, it was 1985. Back to the Future. Rambo II. Rocky IV. The Goonies. National Lampoon’s European Vacation! Another Friday the 13th film. How did we see some of these things? I’m sure it involved VHS tapes and unsupervised cable viewing, but they were all the talk of the playground. My siblings and I stayed after school at a daycare center at the end of our street. We lived at 111 North Magnolia.

I don’t want to touch this next day too much. I’m afraid my mischievous brain will create something that didn’t occur. In my research online, which only turned up old posts on a gossip forum, someone claimed it happened in March, because the pool water was greenish black and full of leaves. I remember the water, but I don’t think it was March. It must have been September.

We were in that fenced-in yard and there was a commotion across the street at the municipal pool. It’s a skate park now, and for years before that it was a raised dirt mound beside an abandoned pumphouse, but then it was a concrete pool surrounded by a high chainlink fence. The entryway was cinderblock, painted sky blue, and it too was secured. Closed. On this day, however, someone found their way in.

At some point a teacher called an ambulance and we were ushered inside. I am not sure if I saw the next part from the yard or the window, but I do remember the view. The teachers were too preoccupied to stop us from peeking. I distinctly recall a wet shirt being thrown on the ground beside a stationwagon. The shirt was striped, red and something else. Brown? My mind says long sleeved but I don’t trust it. The weather data for that day says it was 82 degrees Fahrenheit, scattered clouds, no precipitation. Was it grey, or are the skies of my memory always overcast? I’ll step away from that scene before my mind splinters that eggshell any further.

Mom took me to Thompson Funeral Home to see her, the first in a long line of bodies I would view there: great-grandparents, grandparents, friends, and my Father.

The room was dim and a woman was wailing to my right. Tina had one of those kid-sized caskets. It was a light metallic color but I’m not certain which. She was surrounded by toys. This stands out to me now, crystal clear. Little me, standing in front of that box, and her, already buried in a nest of Barbies, miscellaneous toys, a Cabbage Patch Kid. They were well-loved and I could tell that they had been played with hard. Their little faces were dirty. Hers was clean.

I want to say her hair was curly. Please let it have been curly, because that’s what I remember.

If we travel back some time before, fellow adventurer, we’ll find me standing in Mrs. Chitmon’s room, near her desk. It’s an indoor play period and Tina is there, in front of me. We’d probably just spent twenty minutes burning the knees of our jeans out on the concrete floor, a neat trick that some miscreant taught us that day. I had fancied myself a young “Weird” Al Yankovic and no person or song was safe from my parodies. So there she is, looking up at me and I sing, “Tina, tiny little Tina.” She isn’t impressed. She frowns, turns in a flash of hair, and runs away. That’s it, and we fade out. Far out.

What a day, a year, a life it is.

I have been an anxious person as long as I can remember. I was the kid waiting for the sirens to sound and the bombs to drop. Thanks, Nightly News. I was the kid who could read above his comprehension, so that while I knew all about continental drift and the ice age and the expansion of the sun, I was also terrified about volcanoes and glaciers and the sun engulfing the Earth. That bad boy is still coming, and we’ll all be here for it, right? Right?

There was a time in there, though, in the early 1980s, in the foggy grey mud of memory, when I started to realize that we won’t have to worry about crashing into continents unless we’re on a hijacked plane. I recognized that it actually may not be a long, long time.

I learned that they make caskets that will fit a kid.

I can’t tell you what that means. All I can do is tell you what it is, and as Roscoe Orman, playing Gordon, says to Big Bird in Sesame Street episode #1839, it’s “just because.”

Ten Years of Bathroom Selfies and Other Cosmological Revelations

Once upon a time, in a long string of Worst Ideas Ever, I proposed publishing a coffee table book called “Bob Talbot: Ten Years of Bathroom Selfies”. I had considered adding “and Shitty Poetry” but my good friend Scott suggested that I add “and Other Cosmological Revelations” instead.
I probably would have gone with that.

After spending far too many hours digging through the abyss of Facebook, I realized that it was an endeavor far too sad for me to withstand. It was wintertime, my worst time, and my brain was psyching me out for the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Just looking at the “On This Day” feature was destroying me, and I felt like my life had been trashed and burned on that shithole of a website. Fucking Facebook.

The original plan was to have a page featuring a photo, a small caption identifying place and time, and a facing page with a relevant rant/poem/post from either that day or the closest convenient day.

My rules for myself for what constitutes a “bathroom selfie” were as follows:

1. The camera must be visible.
2. The photo must be of my reflection in a mirror or, barring that, some         other reflective surface.
3. I am in the photo
4. I’m taking the photo.
5. Preferably in a restroom but this is negotiable.

I stuck to this in my selection, mostly, and I’ve posted them here for your perusal, minus the years of shitty poetry and WITTY COMMENTS that I was going to add. I had two recent ones saved that I pasted here, but the rest are lost to time, like tears in rain…

I know you’re extremely disappointed by this.

Anyhoo, I decided to dump the carcass of that idea here because it’s not going anywhere else. It was something I did to occupy myself during a rough period of my life. There’s plenty of shitty poetry on Facebook that I do not care to dig up. I threw it into that pit and I’m done shit spelunking.

Feast your eyes on this.

2008 07 03 Barnes & Noble Store #2250, Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA, Planet Earth, Sol System, Mutter’s Spiral

2008 07 10

Breakroom.

2008 08 23

My razr.

10-15-2008

The only thing interesting going on is the collapse of western society which is long overdue.
I’m trying to decide whether I want to wear white football pads or black football pads after the apocalypse. Black is always in style but the white definitely has a neat 80’s look to it if you accessorize properly.

2008 12 19
St. Bernard’s Regional Hospital. Dad’s first hospitalization in late 2008.

2009 03 21

Airplane restroom, flight from Memphis to LAX, showing off some Stolen Valor from when I worked on the Manhattan Project during the big WWII. 

2009 08 10

Home, upstairs bathroom. Now I have a Samsung Blackberry knock-off.

2009 11 16

Dad’s house, guest bathroom.

09-30-2009
Hey old man with your/Silent Hill strategy guide/stop breathing on me

11-25-2009
There’s no “I” in “TEAM” but there’s one in “EAT SHIT”.

11-27-2009
I wonder how many people got stampeded to death today? The answer: NOT ENOUGH.

12-11-2009
The question is what to do with the Tooth Fairy if you are ever successful in capturing it.

12-21-2009
My bike went from a 21 speed to a 7 speed today. Oh well, I never used those lower 14 speeds anyway.

2009 11 17

Screwing around at work. 

2009 12 11

My boss’s bathroom.  That was a night.

2009 12 23

Work again. Most of these take place here.

2010 03 28

On a plane to LA.

2010 06 12

Work.

2010 07 03

More work.

2010 08 06

2010 now. I’m on a plane to Alaska. This is my old cowboy hat, which I stopped wearing because people kept calling it a fucking Fedora.

2010 08 07

Dad, at Tim Berg’s Alaskan Fishing Adventure. I’m there in the window.

2010 08 09

Store window in Anchorage, Alaska, near the starting point of the Iditarod.

2010 08 09b

In the Gulf of Alaska on the Tia Rose. Dad said “permission to come aboard, Captain?” 

2010 08 09c

The sea was angry that day, my friends.

2010 08 09d

Cabin restroom. Soldotna, Alaska.

2010 10 08

Fucking work.

2010 10 12a

Mopping overflowed urinal for 800th time.

2010 10 12b

Hrnghhhh.

2010 10 26

Fuck work.

2010 11 25

Restroom of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

2010 11 27

I had to immortalize this stupid, stupid fucking hat. I replaced the cowboy hat with an actual Fedora-esque felt hat. Definitely a step in the wrong direction. I have Fedora deep inside me. Explains a lot.

2010 12 05

Closing time at B&N.

2010 12 21

2010.

2010 12 28

One of dad’s hospital rooms.

2011 09 13

Arkansas State University. That’s my fathers Ducks Unlimited sponsor hat.

2011 09 17a

Cregeen’s Irish Pub, the summer after dad died. I barely recall taking this. 

2011 09 17b

I went home and almost fucking died. Those were great times. Wearing dad’s hats and trying to drink myself to death.

2011 11 12

A book signing at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.

2011 12 12

Arkansas State University, perhaps my last day before Graduating with a Bachelor’s in Jack Shit. “Interdisciplinary Studies”. Five years later, I still work retail.

2012 01 15

Another signing, Harding U, Searcy, Arkansas.

2012 09 19

Craighead County Fairgrounds, Jonesboro, Arkansas.

2012 10 01

Restaurant in Buffalo, New York.

2012 10 16a 2012 10 16b 2012 10 16c

Some shaving at home.

2012 12 17 2012 12 17b

Little Rock Zoo.

2012 12 25

A gift from my brother and sister-in-law. It’s my daughter’s face on Che’s head.

2012 12 29

Celebrating opening at Midnight on Black Friday.

2013 02 23

Dropped a register loading up at Harding and sliced my finger on the register paper blade.

2013 05 26 2013 08 01

Some angry bald idiot.

2013 10 17

Ex-wife’s orthodontist’s office. Jonesboro, AR.

2013 11 20

Gained 20 lbs, grew a beard, started wearing sweaters.

2013

Cregeen’s.

2014 08 21

Fucking around with the merchandise.

2014 09 28

Hotel in Puebla, Mexico, at my brother’s wedding.

someone thinks they’re Gone Girl
the truth is, they’re a Yawn Girl
the object in her meaty mitts
that she’s mistaken for a scalpel
or Chris Kyle’s sniper rifle
is a sledgehammer
an atom bomb fired point blank
laying waste to all
men, women, children held hostage
in the glow of stupid radiation
the dumbest fucking radiation
the hantavirusebolaAIDS
that she wishes was a laser
tear down the walls
I shot the Archduke
and she murdered Europe

2014 11 25 2014 11 25a 2014 11 25b

2014 12 05 2014 12 05a 2014 12 22a 2014 12 22b 2014 12 22c 2015 01 21 2015 01 25a 2015 01 25b 2015 01 25c 2015 01 25d 2015 01 25e 2015 01 29

At home, celebrating getting to see my children. There aren’t many Cora selfies because she wouldn’t stay still. I had Bea in the football hold so she pretty much had to participate.

America
Shall I compare thee
to literary dystopias
or fascist clowns of yesterday
elicit laughs and shaking heads
dismissal of the slow crush
from people who know better
after all, it ain’t that bad
America
Empire seat of the world
poor Southern men weep
as that guy from The Hangover
puts children to sleep
and dirty hands
with fat farmer tans
echo “savage”
crocodile tears and the raising of beers
to our modern Achilles
the Man With Two First Names
who slew the dusky hordes in New Orleans
(or so he said)
dented Ventura’s dimpled chin
(or so he said)
And, Justified, did work for us
(or so he said)
’til chaos or your God, etc.
sent the Marines to Rough Creek
to put down a rabid dog
America
there are heroes, still

2015 02 15 2015 02 15a 2015 02 15b

Brushing our teeth.

2015 02 25 2015 02 25a

Memaw’s house, Judd Hill, Arkansas.

2015 07 06

Lost 15 lbs. Started lifting, BRO. GONNA GET SWOLE BRO.

2015 08 07

First Great Western train from London to Cardiff.

2015 08 08

Had to include this one by Gina.

2015 08 08a

Outside the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, UK. This is a reflection off the surface of what we call the Torchwood Tower.

2015 08 23

The garage.

2015 08 25

Hell, USA. Replacing a toilet seat. This is the new one, of course. The old one covered me in piss rust.

2015 09 26Still kicking.

The Kontest

“This is my machine.”

George’s Arcade was a converted BP station situated in the parking lot between two restaurants, Big Beaver Breakfast and La Frontera.

Diane stood with her arms crossed, defiant. Of course it was her machine. Not only had she mastered the moves of every character in Mortal Kombat, but her family owned the arcade. She faced a growing crowd of elementary and middle school kids fresh out of last period.

Small, bespectacled Bernard was next to her, visibly quaking. The kids called him Nards, a nickname that began as an insult and had eventually lost its power out of repetition. Now it was a strange term of endearment. “Get her, Nards,” someone said, low.

“It’s not fair,” Nards said. “You don’t even have to pay. We’d all be that good if we had the key and we could just keep sticking in the same quarter.”

“Key or not,” Diane replied, “I’m this good because I work at it and I beat all of your asses. I should hit you for real.” She raised her fist and the crowd backed up a step, forming a half circle around them.

“I’ve been practicing as well,” said Nards. “I have a setup at home. Me and the guys chipped in, didn’t we guys?” He looked around for support, his arms raised. “We’ve been playing all weekend and I’m obviously the best.”

“Everybody knows that Nintendo isn’t the same,” said Diane. “It doesn’t even have a joystick. You’ll get wrecked in the tournament.”

“I’d wreck you,” he said, practically panting, “if you’d just give me the chance!”

“You don’t have any money,” she said. “You and your dirty friends spent it all on shitty Nintendo games and this is the real deal. I can play all I want but you need quarters and I don’t see any.”

Nards looked down, his eyes welling. Dozens of sneaker-clad feet shuffled around him. “He can win. I’m telling you he can win,” said a girl, softly, behind him.

“Shut the fuck up, Liz,” said Diane. “You’re not coming to my tournament party if you don’t keep your goddamned mouth shut.”

“Holy shit,” drifted up from the back of the crowd. The kids were accustomed to regular playground banter but now they were in the wild frontier of verbal conflict.

No one had noticed the bell jingling atop the swinging glass door behind the kids. The crowd began to part as someone made their way through. Their heads tilted down towards a boy hefting a backpack that looked as if it might weigh as much as he did. He struggled, each step thudding, until he reached the players’ territory in front of the machine and let the pack drop to the floor with a jangle.

“Donnie,” said Diane, as if stating a fact.

Donnie looked up, grinning through a smear of chocolate. “I’m here to pway,” he said. He couldn’t have been five years old. He wasn’t even in school yet but here he was, unsupervised, with a bag full of his daddy’s money.

“Fuck off Donnie,” Diane said. “You don’t know shit about Mortal Kombat and you’re going to get machine all sticky.”

“I can pway,” he said, grinning impossibly. Was he unhinging his jaw? “I can pway. I can pway aww day.”

Donnie unzipped the bag and revealed what must have been upwards of $500 in quarters. The still-growing audience collectively gasped.

“He can play,” voices arose from behind him. It was a chant. “He can play. He can play!”

“Okay, okay,” Diane said. “Fuck. Fine. Someone get him a stool. And wipe your goddamned hands, Donnie.”

The children were used to following orders from Diane. She practically ran the place. They were vaguely aware of a wiry fellow smoking a cigar behind the glass display case full of wacky wall walkers and parachute men, but no one paid him any mind anymore. It was rumored he’d beat every level of Pac Man back in ’83, but there was a dwindling number of kids who even knew what that was.

Step stool fetched and hands wiped, Donnie took his place to Diane’s right. “This will be a piece of cake,” she said aloud for the benefit of the crowd.

She smiled.

Donnie selected a character, seemingly at random, and they began.

Diane’s hands flew in a flurry of special moves. She landed hit after hit and, within seconds, Donnie was down.

She laughed, a cackle that sent chills down spines. “Hope you have another huge sack of cash, Donnie Dumpo!”

Round Two began. Donnie flailed, wildly. Beads of sweat dotted his brow.

He was hitting her.

“Shit,” she said, breathing heavily. “Stop playing wrong YOU’RE PLAYING WRONG.”

She tried combo after combo and produced nothing. Donnie landed a hit. Hit. Hit. Hit.

Then she was down.

“Fuck you, Donnie. Fuck you,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’m done fucking around.”

Round Three. Fight.

Diane was tense, livid. Heavy breaths shot out through her nostrils.

“You can’t. You won’t,” she said, punctuating each jerk of her joystick and button mash with a declaration. “You can’t!”

Donnie flopped, jumping up and down on the stool in time with his character on screen. He was mad. Whirling. Winning.

“NO. FUCK,” Diane cried as her power bar lowered. For every hit she landed he returned another, and then another. She couldn’t discern a pattern. He was pure chaos, a random number generator made flesh.

Then she was down, both Diane and her character. Somehow Donnie had fumbled into a Fatality sequence, which had just begun, and Diane was on the floor doing something when the screen went dark.

She stood up and brandished a thick, black electrical cable.

Moans of disappointment filtered through the room.

“Fuck you guys,” she said. “That’s right,” she yelled after them as the crowd began to break up. “Fuck you. I earned this. This is my arcade! I’m going to the tournament. Me! Me!”

Donnie had already dragged his bag over to plug quarters into Street Fighter II. Liz hung back, hands clasped, and Nards, inexplicably, was still standing beside the Mortal Kombat machine.

“Uh, Diane,” he said, his chin down. “Uh, can I go to the tournament party with you? I can carry your bag.”

“Eat shit, Nards.” she said. “I’m taking Liz.”

Liz smiled.


Part two of The Kontest is here.