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"Side-Scrolling Games," short story excerpt

Wednesday 6/2/21

You weren’t supposed to say the word “when” around my friend Ryan’s dad. That was one of Ryan’s rules. His dad was going to die because he’d been in Vietnam and something had happened to him so precise in its eventual deadliness that multiple doctors could say, “At this exact age, you’ll start to go, so your life must be lived first.”


He didn’t like to be reminded of the order of things—the when of things—Ryan said. I told him I could do that. We were about eleven-years-old and we made up rules on the fly and were usually accepting of the rules the other would make. Which was the unwritten rule of the rules. A ball over a given tree in backyard baseball counted for a home run. Football was never two-hand touch, but two completed forward passes—no matter how short—earned you a first down. The first down one was stupid to me, but the kids in our neighborhood had thought it was okay, so I didn’t make a big push.


Ryan and I played a lot of Pitfall on the Atari in his basement that smelled like cat litter and laundry detergent. We’d become friends long ago because he’d fallen and cut his knee open at recess. One of those wrecks that compels other kids to race over to see how spectacular it had been. I was the first to inspect his knee when Ryan couldn’t even look at it. The blood was bubbling. Actual bubbles in the blood, which was foamy. I told him it was awesome, and he was going to be all right. I could tell he believed me, and now we both knew we were friends.

I learned how people get created in that basement, but I had my doubts, like I guess I had about Ryan’s dad. He’d seem fine, even if he had stopped working.


We were talking about Ryan’s sister Kerry, who I had a crush on. My first crush. She had huge tits though she seemed like she shouldn’t have, because she wasn’t much older than us, just like we knew we shouldn’t have used words like “tits,” but that’s why we used them when we were alone.


Ryan said what his dad had done with his mom to be able to have kids, and I didn’t believe him. Not that I thought he was a liar. I figured he misunderstood. I told him only the top part could possibly go in, not the whole thing. We agreed to disagree, I guess, since it didn’t come up anymore, and we went back to Pitfall in the dark because we never put the light on for the mood and it felt cooler with the heat.


I imagined that all of the junk in that basement was part of a jungle. The boxes, bookshelves, bean bag chairs, were vines, trees, clumps of moss, just so much growth. Verdancy Central. We were in the game like we were a couple of Pitfall Harrys ourselves. Vulnerable to crocodiles, scorpions, and rolling barrels that came from God knows where or were sent on their way from Who-the-fuck-knows. That was the summer his dad was supposed to die. More or less. If it wasn’t the summer it’d be the fall. He might have Christmas.


We never went far that school vacation, Ryan and me. Baseball didn’t happen. Football didn’t happen. The furthest I’d go during the day before I went home at night was upstairs to use the bathroom at Ryan’s house, but I’d always use the one on the second floor, because it was near Kerry’s room.


She’d leave her door open and some clothes on the floor when she wasn’t there. I wanted to touch them and I even invented a story I’d use if I got caught. I’d say something about tidying up. Old habits. How my mom never let me leave unless my room was clean.


Downstairs Ryan would ask me if I had seen Kerry. He’d have conquered another level of Pitfall in the interim. His goal was to go as far in the game as possible. We were different players that way. I liked seeing the places that Pitfall Harry went to. I wanted to be an explorer. I thought that was a job you could have. I’d answer, “Sort of.” Then we’d talk about how advanced Pitfall was, which enthused us both. One of the first side-scrolling games, with the action going left to right in continuous, unbroken play. And I remember thinking it was so real that even when Pitfall Harry died, the rest of his jungle world continued on, was occurring off-screen, only now you didn’t see it. But there it would have been all the same. There it was.