When I was 14, my dad gave me his Atari 400 as a Christmas gift. In those days, he would come to pick me up every other week to stay the weekend. Usually, we’d go see a movie—sometimes two—and eat pizza and watch old science fiction shows on the television. During the summers, I might even stay there until Tuesday or Wednesday. That was always fun, because I could look at his Playboys while he was at work, always being extremely careful to put them back in the exact location and orientation in which I found them. I was shocked when, one day, he came home and showed me an article in the newest Playboy about Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. I remembered my face turning warm, as though I had just shot a hundred milligrams of morphine directly into my jugular.
“B-b-but that’s a Playboy,” I stammered.
“I don’t think it’s anything you haven’t seen before,” he grinned slyly. “Didn’t your mom tell you what you did when you were three?”
I just stared at him blankly. I was terrified of my dad. He and my mother were teenagers when I surprised the entire family by making a guest appearance. My grandparents convinced them they should do the right thing and marry. My mother was elated at the prospect of having a baby and even a family with my father. His reaction wasn’t quite as warm: “I don’t want this damn kid!, or you!” He spent the next five years reminding both us of that fact. I couldn’t imagine what I had done when I was three, but I was sure I paid dearly for it.
“When you were three years old, you took one of my Playboys out from under the sink in the bathroom, tore out the centerfold and took it to bed with you. You always have had a thing for blondes.” He laughed at the memory with a detectable note of pride. He had changed significantly since the divorce. For a couple of years after my parents split, I would refuse to see my dad, as terrified as I was of him. Since then, he did everything he could to make up for his past mistreatments—including giving me the Atari 400 computer he had bought for himself.
Still, one could argue he had no real choice in the matter. Even after having taken a few programming classes in college and studying the Atari programming manual for a month, he could still only make the computer print “Hello Darren!” in an endless loop. A month after buying the computer, he picked me up one Saturday morning. By the following Friday, I had written a Pac-Man clone. Working on that Atari was satisfying on so many levels –– it was intellectually challenging, it made me feel good to hear my dad brag to his friends that I was a genius with the thing and even they would ask me how to program things.
A lot changed in two years. My dad dropped out of my life when I dropped out of school. The tape recorder that stored programs for the Atari died and I had to write all my code down on paper and retype it in anytime I wanted to use it. By then, I was programming in a language that used nothing but numbers—“machine language”–and if I got one number wrong, the entire machine would freeze completely. I would have to restart it, figure out what was wrong and retype it all in again, hoping and praying with all my soul that my fix would work and I wouldn’t have to repeat the entire process.
My mother had also married Shafto—her third husband. She had an uncanny ability to pick the worst possible men available. My first step dad, though good to me, beat her often. She only divorced him after I saw the abuse for the first time and spent two weeks convincing her she should leave. We lived with my grandparents for the next few years until she met Shafto. She married him just as my grandmother was dying of cancer.
A year after they were married, my mother told me about the night before when Shafto woke up in a cold sweat, tossing and turning and moaning.
“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.
“The men in black, babe. I was dreamin’ ‘bout them men in black.”
“What are you talking about?”
My mother said it was all she could do to keep from laughing, “You were a cook in the army.”
“They still messed me up bad over there, babe.”
The intensity of Shafto’s hatred for me and the extent of his insanity were matched only by the degree of his stupidity. His favorite saying, “I’m just a dumb ol’ country boy, but I’m a smart dumb ol’ country boy!” was actually the most insightful thing I’d ever heard him say. Under different circumstances, I might have even found him somewhat entertaining. His theories about “them sendin’ that damn space shuttle up thar is punchin’ a hole in the sky” would have provided me with countless hours of entertainment if they had been posited by someone I could stand to be around for more than ten seconds.
But spending as much as ten seconds around Shafto was asking too much of me. Not even Christ himself had that much patience. I did everything in my power to never be in the same space with him. If I wasn’t working or hanging out with friends, I was locked away in my room, working on the computer or watching movies and sneaking tokes off a pipe made from a Coke can. Sometimes, I would get so high I couldn’t see straight enough to watch Blade Runner. Then I’d stay up for two days in a row programming, imagining that the electric circuits were the perpetually darkened Los Angeles in the movie and the electrons were like the black rains. I would work on programming problems so difficult that they would sober me up and I would get a rush that I can only describe as a runner’s high.
Such is what I was looking forward to on my night off from the gas station. I bought a quarter of weed from Bunt and picked up a case of Coke and a carton of Marlboro Lights on the way home. I parked the Monte Carlo off to the side of the large, circular driveway where it would be out of Shafto’s way as he demanded. It was still winter and I could put several cans of Coke outside my window so they would stay cold. I flipped on the Atari, smoked several hits off an empty can, lit a candle and resumed work on a video game I had been writing for the past several weeks. The gist of the game was that the player had to maneuver a spaceship deep into the caverns of Mars, battling pterodactyls, mines and laser canons along the way. I was at the point where I was experimenting with creating various sound effects for the explosions and the pterodactyls, and looking for a sound that was really cool. I had already written a program that would take numeric values and convert them into proper musical notes and had transcribed the guitar music to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil as the background score.
After about an hour of working out various combinations of distortion values, pitches and volumes, I heard the rumble of Shafto’s van pull into the driveway. My stomach knotted immediately. It was always a crapshoot whether he would leave me alone or decide to barge into my little world and remind me of what a disgusting creature I was.
That night, I rolled snake eyes. First, the banging open of the front door, then the clomp-clomp-clomp-clomp of those filthy hick boots, then the throwing open of my door so that it thudded violently against the wall.
“Just whut in tha hell is your problem?”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell me…”
“It’s after midnight and you’re in here blarin’ that racket. What the hell are you tryin’ ta prove?”
I shook my head. The guy hadn’t been in the house more than five seconds and he was acting like I was Michael J. Fox cranking up some mad scientist’s nuclear-powered amplifier while he was trying to sleep.
“Answer me BOY!”
“I’m not a boy, I’m a Mann. I’ve been a Mann since I was born.”
Wit and sarcasm never really seemed to penetrate Shafto’s rather thick skull, “You ain’t a man! You ain’t never gonna be a man! All you do is play on that goddamn computer all night and run around with a bunch a whores and druggies!”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m just the biggest piece of shit God ever flushed out of the sky.”
“Don’t get smart with me BOY!”
“I’m not getting smart with you. You’re right. I’m just trash. I’ll never be worth a damn.” I continued programming, never once looking at Shafto’s wrinkled face; it always reminded me of a piece of overcooked roast beef – grey and wrinkled and covered with a bushy beard that, if one were willing to carry the analogy that far, could be likened to a disgusting coating of mold.
“Fact is, you can’t get smart with me, BOY! I got more intelligence in my little toe than you got in your whole body!”
“You’re absolutely right. And I’m probably causing a hole in the sky too.”
“Turn that damn TV off and get your ass to bed. You gonna be late for work tomorrow. Or did you already get fired?”
“No, I work tomorrow.”
“You goddamn well better, BOY! And get this goddamn cat of yours outta here!”
I tuned the television down as far as I could while still hearing it as Shafto clomped off to the bedroom. I crept out to the living room to get Mitt, who wasn’t allowed to roam around the house—I had to either leave him outside or keep him locked in my room. With great effort, I had outwardly managed to keep calm, but inside I was reaching critical mass. I shut off the computer, dropped some pot into my empty can I had hidden under the bed and put in the Empire Strikes Back, longing to be in a galaxy far, far away.
As fate would have it, Travis was also suffering at the hands of his parents that night. Bunt and Dee were convinced that Travis was never going to move out of the house. He held exactly one job since I’d known him—his mother had gotten him a position at the Hilton bussing tables along with me. He was fired within weeks due to customer complaints about him spitting, wiping his ever-dribbling nose and sweating profusely—all due to his Tourette’s. Travis’ parents could get quite bitchy about his unemployment when they felt like it, but they did acknowledge that he at least had the right to exist.
Apparently the nagging was too much for Travis that night and I noticed the headlights of his little gold Colt pull in behind Shafto’s maroon van. I hopped up, threw on some shoes and a coat and shoved my Coke can pipe into the pocket on my way out to meet him. Normally, I would be more concerned about being quiet. The slightest creak of a floorboard would be enough to set Shafto off but not even he was stupid enough to mess with Travis at six-three and two-seventy-five. I made it out to the car before Travis could even get his door open.
“Hey man, what’s goin’ on?”
“Awww, phhhhsssssshhhhh, my parents have been on my ass all night, man.” His neck flexed to the side and he made a whooshing sound.
“Really? They seemed OK earlier…”
“They got pissed because I ate too much at dinner. That started it. Sssshoooosshhhh!”
“Hmmmm. Yeah, Shafto’s been his normal sweet self.”
“Jesus Christ. Fuckers.”
“I don’t get it man, at least you’re in school. Why can’t they chill out long enough for you to finish VoTech at least?”
“I really need to get high, man.”
This was a rare treat indeed. Travis almost never smoked pot. If I was really lucky, I would be able to talk him into doing his Dee Snider imitation once he was high. “Let’s go down to the end of the gravel road there. Shafto probably has us under surveillance.”
I hopped in the Colt and we slowly drove a couple hundred feet down the gravel driveway, until we passed a hump in the road where some railroad tracks had been removed. Travis put in his favorite tape—Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry—and we passed the can between us, each toke taking us one step further away from our troubles until we were laughing and joking about rednecks and Sunday morning Kung Fu movies.
Travis’ face was red and moist, reminding me of a sausage. His eyes were teary and his laugh was a hysterical falsetto. The time was right, “Come on Travis, do the Price!”
Travis laughed, his eyes squinting and drool running from his mouth, “No man, come on!”
“The Price, Travis! Do the Price!”
“Oh it’s the price we gotta pay and all the games we gotta play makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on…”
The crazy imitation of Dee Snider—soft and high-pitched—coming from Travis’ mammoth body was always too much to bear and I lost myself in laughter.
“Hey man, tttt-ttttt-ttttt!” Travis laughed, “there’s someone out there!”
“What the fuck are you talking about man? You’re high!”
We both laughed as Travis pointed out toward some bushes off to the side of the road, “Look over there!”
He was right! There was a person hiding in the bushes. We watched several minutes, our giggling slowly fading away. The shadowy figure ran over to another set of bushes closer to us. It remained hunched over and appeared to be carrying a stick.
“Is that Shafto?” I wondered.
“Phhhhhwwwwwwwssshhhhhhhhhhh. What’s he doing?” Travis broke out in laughter again.
Shafto lunged out of the bushes and ran toward us. I quickly shoved the Coke can pipe under the seat.
“What the hell are you boys doin’ out here?!”
The insane son-of-a-bitch was wearing nothing but a t-shirt and briefs and carrying a rifle.
“Uhh, we’re just talking?”
“You almost got yourselves shot. You know people’s been dumpin out here!”
“Get back to the house!”
Travis had gone from beet red to ghostly white. He started the car and we headed back to the house, with Shafto following behind like some sort of demented soldier escorting a couple of prisoners to a camp.
“Tttt-ttt-tttt! Man, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to get you in trouble!”
“It’s not your fault, man. Fuck that asshole.”
We pulled back into the driveway and waited in the car until Shafto came around to Travis’ side. His rifle must have given him a sense of bravery. Normally, he wouldn’t think of being disrespectful to Travis. “You get your ass home. You ain’t got no business bein’ out this late.”
“You get your ass back inside,” he nodded his greasy head at me.
“Later, Travis.” I silently walked back inside and locked myself in my room as the Colt labored to haul its massive cargo back down the gravel driveway.
I could hear Shafto muttering and cursing as he locked his rifle in his cabinet and went back to his bedroom. I knew he realized the whole time that it was Travis and me out there. There was no way he couldn’t have known. He didn’t fall asleep in ten minutes. He didn’t suddenly lose that ultra-sensitive, army-trained hearing that enabled him to detect my footsteps from the opposite side of the house. Yes, he knew it was us out there.
And I knew he wanted to shoot me.