“This game is NOT cool!” Hey now, Jaleco, EGM gave this their game of the month award, no need to be so hard on it! In fact, all you ‘90s marketers should stop with the ironic anti-taglines before we slap you with some EarthBound scratch-and-sniff stickers.
The parents argue. Ad infinitum. They don’t notice that the son is cutting class and selling marijuana behind the high school, that he finds greater comfort in the artificial than in the uncertain household where the parents argue. Ad infinitum. Although he doesn’t always hear them, their jaded expressions give themselves away; their staccato footsteps diminish his otherwise content mood. Dirty coffee mugs and crusted bowls with macaroni are cluttered dirty in the sink; wine glasses stained in crimson bleed several stems down to the bottom; he doesn’t bother to decipher the correlation between what they say and what they mean, has learned not to reason or justify their frequent false promises. His thoughts queue up and scatter again in seconds. The parents barely notice when he’s absent, but when they do, he notes a brief release from all the tension, replaced with sudden concern for something they both had worked together to create. This gives him ideas.
They live next door to the Italians.
The Italians come out every morning and light cigarettes on their porches. They set up camp in plastic patio chairs and say nothing to each other as they examine the weaning day, half awake and squinty-eyed, so early that the sun isn’t up, and the streetlamps are still on, and the street is near bare and dismally quiet. When it’s summer and the son sleeps with the window open, their Modiano smoke trails in like a ghost into his bedroom. This also gives him ideas. It makes him dream about fires and arson and burning down the apartment so that maybe the parents will pay attention and stop yelling ad infinitum. He doesn’t take his pills that night, but he swears to them that he did.
It’s still early, only a little after dinner, when the parents start to argue. The accumulation of dew like spring that forms on the son’s upper lip; the tiny gasps of irritated anger that push behind a clenched barrier of teeth; the pressure throbbing in his chest, under cold skin; the open mouth. He distracts himself with the computer and searches images of girls that look resemble his classmates in short skirts that fall around their knees down to their ankles, congeal like snakes around their bony joints.
When the son was in middle school there was a rumor that he set the boy’s bathroom on fire. What he never told anyone, not even the parents, was that the rumor was true, and that he did it on purpose. He had taken the matches his father collected in glass jars around the house, in complimentary little boxes along with soaps and shampoos from the bathrooms of several Marriot hotels from business trips around the globe. He remembers being taken to the sixth-grade counselor at lunch who told him he should talk to someone if he is angry. He remembers when she said, “It is bad to let sadness or anger fester.” He remembers that her hair is already gray, but the skin on her face is relatively tight. He pretended to listen as he imagined her in a short skirt that falls in a puddle at her black stilettos. He imagined himself taking her hair down from her too-tight bun and her sitting on his face when she said, “Festering emotions can be detrimental to your health.” He can tell that she is studying his expression with a kind of learned professionalism that divides the two of the them more than the distance of the table between them. “How is everything?” she said; her posture is straight and his is hunched. “And how are things at home?”
The orange autumnal sunlight that peaks through the cracks of cartoon curtains is overpowered by the sounds of the parents who are yelling; ad infinitum. The steam that trails up from the mug of green tea like wildfire in the forest; these combining factors ignite a spark of ideas.
They also live next door to the Sphinx.
The Sphinx, who owns twelve cats and was accepting more, who even got plastic surgery to lift her face, which gave her the appearance of something feline, and that’s why everyone called her Sphinx. The Sphinx leaves food on her doorstep to lure in strays, and removes the collars from the ones that have them, doesn’t even look twice at the missing animal posters that line up in a white rectangle sequence all along the neighbor’s doors. When the Sphinx’s cats meow and hiss, the son wraps his head up in his pillow. The heat of his sheets and his blankets make him sweat; little beads roll down his legs and back like the wax of a burning candle. Images like this, like the sticks his mother lights in a circle around the mouth of her bathtub, only fuel the son’s dangerous ideas.
So he picks the Tuesday when the parents are fighting ad infinitum to pour some gas and strike a match and set his desk on fire. It is quicker than he anticipated for it to engulf; it bursts up at him and almost reaches his face, so close that he feels the flames on his eyebrows and his moustache, and he jumps back and watches in wonder until the alarm goes off. It is the banshee scream that pierces the building with an aura of anxiety and presage; the flames tuft out the window and mingle with the heat of the humid summer. People flee the building, some men half-dressed in boxers, women in hair in curlers, barefoot, mud-faced, and teenagers indisposed. When the son’s mother barges into his bedroom, her eyes are wild, her expression, bewildered. She sees the culprit right before her, and grabs him by the arm, and with the extinguisher she yields, begins to quell the cackling blaze. It ends with the father in the doorway, stunned at the strange thing his son has done, cats leaping from out the room of the Sphinx’s adjacent window, landing on their feet and then scurrying towards the alleys with the sound of frantic Italian voices shouting: “Fuoco! L’edificio e in fiamme!”
“What the hell are you doing?!” his mother asks through a mist of white fog. The son doesn’t know what will happen from here, but he knows that his parents have stopped yelling ad infinitum. The father thinks that the boy standing beside him resembles his son, although he does not recognize the way his face has contorted into something so incredibly unfamiliar that he can’t believe it is composed of his own genetic elements. He wonders how much of childhood is nature and how much of childhood is nurture and if there is something possibly wrong with the son where he and the mother hold some sort of responsibility for this kind of strange behavior. And the son doesn’t really know how to answer the mother, because he doesn’t really know how to answer anything, like a baby, who can see his hands and fingers outstretched in front of him, grasping and groping the open air, but who cannot see himself.
This is the son’s first contributing memory: the mother has a red brush that matches her red hair and orange lipstick that she slides across her young lips. The father has a rusty watch on his wrist attached to a hand that holds a sweltering cigar. The shadows stretch and the big star sinks behind the mountains that subdue the glowing sun. The smiling mother holds before her a big blue cake with six blue candles.