Sometimes when you’re growing up you don’t know what will become of your friendships. I mean the relationships with the people your own age, who are in the proverbial shit with you. Math tests, acne, inopportune erections. These minor daily apocalypses bond you to the people around you, and you don’t ever think about what your life will be like when you’re thousands of miles away, with wives and husbands and kids and dogs and mortgages and, yes, still more acne and inopportune erections.
That was never a worry for me and my best friend Micah, though. Micah was a part of my life since my first ever memory (accidentally squashing a lizard on a tennis court by the way, which I flash back to whenever I watch MASH), and always would be. He was what our algebra teacher Mr. Ramanujam used to call a constant. Something that would always stay the same throughout the course of my life, like a benign form of herpes. That was because he was a Marbell, and Marbells don’t change.
Micah came from a long line of staunch nonconformists. His mother was originally from the Lockwood clan, a family famous in our parts for three things: mechanical ability, hatred of anything even vaguely resembling change, and illegal liquor manufacturing. It was the second of these personality quirks, and quite possibly more than a little of the third, that led her to marry into the Marbell family. For the man she married was a Marbell among Marbells.
Mr. Marbell, Micah’s dad, was the paragon of his familial line. One only had to look at him to get the feeling that all the previous generations, going back to the first amphibian Marbell which had taken a wrong turn somewhere by an otherwise humdrum riverbank and which had promptly lost its way back to the water, had somehow distilled their Marbellness into the being you saw before you. He was a short, hairy (everywhere but on top of his head), bespectacled man, always smiling at some private joke which he didn’t particularly care to share with anyone, always with a faraway look in his eye as if the present moment was just a temporary thing, not worth his consideration.
This preoccupation with ethereal things led directly to Mr. Marbell’s most Marbellian characteristic. He was a loser. Make that a Loser with a capital ‘L’. I don’t mean that Mr. Marbell was a failure in life. Quite the opposite in fact. He was a successful salesman. He had turned his family’s hardware store into a multi-state chain. Marbell’s Hammers and More was where wives in towns and cities within a 500 mile radius of my hometown looked for their husbands when the bars had yet to open and there wasn’t any football on TV. No, by ‘loser’ I mean that Mr. Marbell lost things.
If losing things was an Olympic event, Mr. Marbell could have brought home the gold in every Olympiad since the time he was first able to stand upright. Things that ordinary mortals lost perhaps once or twice a year, things like keys and wallets and cell phones and eyeglasses, were mere child’s play to Mr. Marbell. Everyone in town had a copy of Mr. Marbell’s front door key, since his keys, which he had made from a model in his own hardware store every afternoon at 3:30 by a very pleasant man named Ernie, miraculously disappeared every evening like clockwork on his drive home.
This was made even more impressive since he lived a five minute drive away from his flagship hardware store and the fact that the keys would disappear from the key ring, which was always attached to his car keys, which were also always attached to the ignition column of Mr. Marbell’s car. While his ability to lose things was a local wonder, it never seemed to bother Mr. Marbell. On arriving home, he would simply walk up to the nearest neighbor, jogger, mailman, small child or stray dog and borrow their spare set of keys to his house. When we were kids, Micah and I would find his house keys in bird’s nests, on top of the roof of the elementary school five miles away, in my grandfather’s denture jar, and even once at the bottom of a dried up well. In fact, you could find Mr. Marbell’s keys anywhere except for upon Mr. Marbell’s person. He was that kind of loser.
Micah and I had a running bet all throughout middle and high school concerning the limits of Mr. Marbell’s unnatural ability to lose things. We began The Great Game innocently enough. One day Micah asked his dad to hold on to his ice cream cone, and then timed how long it took Mr. Marbell to no longer be in possession of the delicious treat. The next day was my turn. I asked Mr. Marbell to hold onto my pet frog Petey for a while until my mom came to pick me up. Mr. Marbell’s good nature and cheery disposition ensured that he eventually and against all logic agreed to take charge of my slimy pal, while Micah and I pretended to toss the football around in the front yard.
A less oblivious person would have seen through my ruse almost immediately. First off, ‘Petey’ was indistinguishable from the thousands of frogs which inhabited the pond directly behind Micah’s house, and second off my mother was famous for only two things in my hometown: her ability to outperform any man, woman or child in the county in a motorized vehicle and her irrational fear and hatred for anyone of the amphibian persuasion. Oh, and the fact that neither Micah or I caught a single throw that afternoon ought to have raised a red flag as well, since our eyes never wavered from Mr. Marbell’s study window. We didn’t want to miss the moment that ‘Petey’ disappeared into the invisible black hole that followed Mr. Marbell around like a somewhat overly rambunctious puppy.
Like I said, this game went on for years. We kept a running tally in a writing book (which soon overfilled its covers and ran on to multiple volumes) that we kept in our clubhouse. Well, we called it our clubhouse, but it wasn’t really a club, nor was it a house. But more on that later. Back to what Micah and I soon began calling The Great Game.
The first few entries in the journal seem innocuous enough. I have a hazy recollection that the scientific method played a large role in the conception and implementation of the experiment. Micah and I were in the same science class in 7th grade, and I was somewhat better at the subject than he was, something for which he has yet to forgive me. The only lesson that Ms. Ferme taught us that Micah seemed to grasp immediately and intuitively was the main topic of our first class: the scientific method.
He loved the idea that he could come up with any thought, no matter how ridiculous, and then devise some test to see how well it fit with reality. The problem was, the tests he devised were even more ridiculous than the theories which he investigated. The net result of Micah’s seventh grade scientific awakening included, but was not limited to, a hundred live catfish in the school swimming pool, an outbreak of gout among the 6th grade Future Farmers of America, and every member in the marching band’s skin turning bright red due to what was reported in the newspaper as ‘full body rashes brought about by mysterious yeast infections’. But the most spectacular, and long-lasting, of the scientific method’s effects on Micah was The Great Game. Here’s the first page of our Great Game Journal (Vol.I):
Time until Disappearance
||1 ice cream cone (vanilla)
||Baseball game (we lost)
||1m. 15 sec.
||1 frog (Petey)
||3m. 07 sec.
||1 M-80 firecracker (lit)
||32 cans of creamed corn
||5m. 13 sec.
||Jill (my sister)’s padded bra
||Hammers and More
||10m. 48 sec.
||Micah’s failing report card
||On a boat in the middle of Lake Lucy
||2m. 05 sec.
||A backpack containing 48 rotten eggs
||En Route to Nathan’s InConvenience Store
||4m. 55 sec.
As you can see, we started off small. It was a daily ritual for Micah and me for almost two years. The only times we took a break from our scientific adventure was when Mr. Marbell went on business trips out of town, and even then we’d fill the trunk of his car with odd items, fully expecting them to be gone by the time he got back. Oh ho, you say. He could have just thrown them all away as soon as he opened his trunk and found it stuffed with 1000 number 2 pencils or 20 sacks of chicken feed or the contents of my maiden uncle’s girlie mag footlocker. But you’d be wrong to ‘oh ho’ at me in such an uncharitable manner. For the simple fact is that Mr. Marbell never once mentioned finding such a strange assortment of items in his car trunk, and as a loving and concerned parent (his absentmindedness notwithstanding) his suspicions would have immediately and rightly fell on Micah and me.
The noble experiment came to an end one winter’s day in 1992. Micah and I were then in the 9th grade, and our natural rivalry had guaranteed that The Great Game had burst the banks of reasonable scientific endeavor long since. Our last journal page is as follows:
Time until Disappearance
||1 Lifesize marble statue of Abe Lincoln
||Jackson High (Go Emancipators!)
||12m. 45 sec.
||1 case of communion wine (light 1 bottle)
||Our Lady of the Redeemed Liver Catholic Church
||11m. 34 sec.
||Ballistics evidence from one of my dad’s cases
||Jackson Police Station
||1m. 02 sec.
||Results of Jill (my sister)’s pregnancy test
||Jackson Bingo Parlor and Funeral Home
||16m. 52 sec.
||1 1984 Ford Pinto (w/ aircon)
||Bingham’s Used Car Emporium
||32m. 47 sec.
||Jackson High 4H club’s prize sow (‘Precious’)
||22m. 19 sec.
Before we get into what ended The Great Game, a few highlights. The fastest Mr. Marbell ever lost something: .08 seconds (a complete stranger’s wallet, found on the floor of our local gas station on August 6th, 1991). The longest Mr. Marbell went without losing something: 1 hour 38 minutes (a picnic table, previously bolted to a concrete slab at Pendleton park, and incidentally still the subject of an active investigation for the Jackson City police force, May 5th 1992). The largest item Mr. Marbell lost during the course of our experiment: a working model of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, lent to the Jackson City Museum of Americana by the Oscar Meyer Hot Dog Company (11,000 lbs). It goes without saying that none of these items, be it Petey the Frog, the ice cream that started it all, the picnic table or the Weinermobile was ever seen again, at least in this dimension of space and time.
The Great Game ended on a Friday in late November. I remember the date for two reasons: first, it was the day before Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released for the Super Nintendo, and second, it was the day that Micah almost became an only child.
Kerry was the name of Micah’s little sister, but we never called her that. We always called her ‘Sweary’, because the first word out of her mouth as a baby was the one that begins with the letter ‘f’ and ends with horrified silences and recriminations. Her mom’s initial diagnosis of Tourette’s was overturned by their family doctor and a parade of specialists, who in unison proclaimed Kerry to be a perfectly healthy little girl with one of the filthiest mouths of any human being not currently in lockup. While Kerry had learned over the course of her childhood to clean up her vocabulary in front of any adult, she let her natural inclination for words of the four-lettered variety run free in conversations with anyone even remotely close to her own age.
A normal conversation with Kerry in 1992 ran something like this:
Me: “Hey Kerry, is Micah home?”
Kerry: “How the fuck should I know?” (Remember, she was seven years old in 1992.)
Me: “Um, I guess I’ll just check in his room then.”
Kerry: “Whatever. You cuntnuggets better fucking keep it down, Rugrats is on.”
In all other ways, Kerry was your prototypical little girl next door. She played with barbies, wore little girl dresses to school, and had teaparties with her teddy bears. Except in this case her teddy bears were named Mrs. Dickpickles and Inspector Pussyhammer. (Inspector Pussyhammer was a policeman teddy bear, and Mrs. Dickpickles was his wife. I always felt vaguely sorry for Mrs. Dickpickles, because from what I overheard coming from Kerry’s bedroom as she was playing with her bears on several occasions, Inspector Pussyhammer was not a gentle lover.)
On the particular fall day in question, however, Kerry along with her salty talk narrowly escaped becoming spoken of only the past tense, because Micah had decided to make her the next, and ultimate, subject of our experiment.
Mrs. Marbell had one rule when it came to Mr. Marbell and their kids: He was never to be left alone with any of them individually for any length of time. This created the unfortunate impression to those who didn’t know the Marbells well that Mr. Marbell was a kiddie fiddler. If any outsider raised the question to anyone from town, it was quickly squashed and they were told of Mr. Marbell’s peculiar talents. For the fact was that Mrs. Marbell, as a good and caring mother, didn’t want any of her children to be ripped from this universe and sent to play out the rest of their existences in an unknown dimension filled with keys, watches, eyeglasses, a frog, and a 1984 Ford Pinto.
Mrs. Marbell believed that as long as Mr. Marbell wasn’t alone with one of her children, then said child stood a reasonable chance of not being sucked into oblivion. This is where her rule came in to play. Micah and Kerry knew from a very young age that never under any circumstances were they to be alone in a room with their dad, because Mr. Marbell’s pet tear in the fabric of space and time would eat them. But Micah, in a fit of hubris known only to teenagers and government officials, decided that he no longer had to play by her rules.
“Kerry,” Micah said on that almost fateful day, “where’s dad?”
Kerry never even looked up from the episode of My Little Pony she was watching. “What do I fucking look like, that asshole Uri fucking Geller? I didn’t know that today was my goddamn day to arrange his cocksucking schedule book. Why don’t you try his office, you fuckwit.” The magical ponies on the TV continued their romp across an idealized meadow while teaching valuable lessons about the beauty of friendship.
Micah walked in front of the TV and sat down on the coffee table. “You know The Rule. I can’t go in alone. Come on.” He moved to turn off the TV set.
Kerry turned her bright blue eyes away from the TV for the first time in the conversation. She gave him a stare that would have melted soft cheese. “Don’t you fucking dare. I think the Princess is about to smoke Lickety-Split’s pink cigar, if you know what I mean. She’s so whorish.”
Micah managed to combine the facial expressions of a young man that might cause physical harm to a female child with that of someone who urgently needed to pee. “Come on. I need to ask if I can borrow the car tonight.”
This was Micah’s ace in the hole. He knew his sister well, having known her most of his life and all of hers. She would recognize that his need for her help in not getting eaten by a tame(ish) black hole would place him in her debt. And he knew that Kerry never hesitated to collect on a debt. Micah may not know Georgia the state from Georgia the country (he once failed a geography test when he wrote that Atlanta was the capital of a Former Soviet Socialist Republic), but he did know how other people’s minds worked, and Kerry’s mind was a particularly open book for him, kind of a mashup of The Catcher in the Rye and Beezus and Ramona.
“I’ll go with you if you promise to drive me to ballet class at five. Take it or leave it, beeotch.” She returned to watching colorful cartoon horses romp about a woodland glade, pretending unconcern, but Micah knew that he had her.
Micah hung his head in an imitation of defeat. “Alright, but just you. I’m not picking anyone else up.”
Kerry’s icy blues flashed in victory. “I’ve changed my mind. I want you to take me AND the Sluts to ballet practice at five.” She stared at him as if daring him to grow a spine. “Look at it this way, moron, this is good training for all of your future interactions with the legions of girls who won’t be polishing your one-eyed zipper fish in college.”
Micah put a hint of wounded pride in his voice, something I thought was particularly amusing as he recreated the scene for me afterward. “The Sluts too? Even Jenna? But she lives on the other side of town!” The Sluts, by the way, were Kerry’s clique in Mrs. Marshall’s second grade class at Jackson Elementary. Outwardly they were perfectly normal little girls, dressing in pink and carrying unicorn trapper keepers, but inwardly they had the hearts and minds of New Jersey longshoremen.
Kerry smiled the smile of someone who has caught his or her superior with their pants around their ankles in the office supply room, and is doing things with a jar of peanut butter that would make the Planter’s mascot scream like an Edvard Munch painting. “Yes, even Jenna. Or you can just stay home and play with Pamela Handerson instead of whatever assplay you and your butt buddies get up to.”
Micah caved in completely then, or at least appeared to. “Alright. Just come on and let’s get this over with.” He stood up and started walking toward Mr. Marbell’s office. He smiled when he heard Kerry stand up, switch off the TV and follow him.
He walked into his dad’s study, knocking on the already open door. “Dad, you got a second?”
Mr. Marbell looked up from the book he had been reading behind his desk, something in another language whose title reminded Micah of the time he hit his head falling out of our treehouse and had seen squiggles on everything for over a week. “Dad, can I borrow the…” Micah’s sentence ended like an overtired bus driver’s journey through treacherous mountain roads, suddenly and with great horror. He had noticed the thing perched atop Mr. Marbell’s head.
Mr. Marbell was, to put it mildly, follically challenged. In fact, Micah’s first clear memory was of seeing his own reflection in the gleaming expanse of Mr. Marbell’s cranial epidermis. It was, everyone in town agreed, a fine head of skin.
That was why Micah was so surprised to find his dad beneath what looked like a lego man’s hairpiece. He was struck speechless by the plasticky abomination perched atop his father’s skull. He heard his sister come in the study behind him, and before his brain registered that he might want to stop and warn her, she had caught sight of the monstrosity covering Mr. Marbell’s braincase like a fitting over a pipe that they both called ‘dad’.
“Thundercunts,” she said in a tone one normally reserves for when one witnesses natural catastrophes or a particularly disgusting triumph of the human spirit, like a world hot dog eating championships or the final episode of a particularly revolting reality TV show.
“Kerry, you know your mother and I don’t like you using such language. Where you pick it up I’ll never know.” Mr. Marbell eyed Micah as a probable culprit, but he knew as well as Micah did that Kerry had taught him most of the swear words he knew and loved, and not the other way around. Micah finally managed to get over his shock, and decided that the best course of action was to ignore the hairpiece entirely. In all probability it would be consigned to the netherworld by Mr. Marbell’s personal black hole (which Micah and I had long since taken to calling Holey) before the day was out. The mystery of the toupee’s improbable existence and its geographical location vis-a-vis Mr. Marbell’s head was an enigma best left unexplored, Micah believed.
“Ahh, dad,” Micah began in a somewhat strangled manner, “I was wondering… ah, whether I could take the car out tonight.”
Mr. Marbell considered the question. “Did you finish your homework?”
As always when faced with a question like this, Micah simply smiled and nodded his head slightly. He considered questions concerning his own personal responsibility to be in the same vein as the questions Zen monks asked themselves in order to contemplate the depths of the universe. Homework, like existence itself, was ultimately unknowable, and as such was both completed and not yet begun depending on one’s particular point of view.
Taking his son’s slight nod as an affirmative, Mr. Marbell said, “Alright, but put some gas in it. Here are the keys and twenty bucks for gas.” He put particular emphasis on those last two words, knowing full well that any money given to Micah would end up spent on pizza or some other species of fast food. “Ahh, just a second, I can’t seem to find my keys or my wallet. They were right here. Help me look for them, you two.” As Mr. Marbell ducked his head to look under the desk for his wallet and keys, which Micah knew for sure were no longer on this planet, Micah decided to put his plan into action. He had noticed that Kerry was staring at Mr. Marbell’s toupee, a scene reminiscent of soldiers in war movies who had come unhinged at the sight of their best friends internal organs rendered extremely external through some horrible act of war. She had the thousand yard stare, but its cause lay not in youth cruelly cut short, but from Mr. Marbell’s obscene mockery of human hair.
Micah edged past her out the open door, and as he passed he heard her whispering, “It can’t be real, fuck me, it can’t be real,” over and over to herself.
Micah’s plan, the greatest coup in Great Game history, was almost at fruition. All he had to do was close the door, and he would have won. There was no way that I could beat this. He was literally sacrificing a virgin to the twin bloodthirsty gods of scientific enquiry (as he imperfectly understood it) and to Holey, the tame(ish) black hole.
He heard the study door hit the jamb, but before it clicked closed a shout rose from behind him. “Andrew Marbell, why on earth are you closing the door to your father’s study? Open it this instant.” Mrs. Marbell had returned unexpectedly, and had caught Micah in the act.
“You know the rules. The door is always to be left open. By the way, where is your sister? I want to talk to her about a particularly offensive text I mistakenly received from her. Apparently she thinks someone named Jenna is a ‘cunt spunk-bubble’, whatever that means. Micah? What’s wrong? Oh my god, is Kerry in the study with your father? And you almost closed the door?”
Mrs. Marbell shouldered Micah out of the way like a tweaker fleeing an imaginary spider infestation. Micah watched as his mother cradled Kerry in her arms, weeping at the narrow escape her youngest child had just had. Kerry continued to stare at Mr. Marbell’s hair helmet, while Mr. Marbell seemed confused about the emotional scene that had erupted out of nowhere and for no clear reason in the middle of his study. He and Kerry continued to stare at each other for a long minute, while Mrs. Marbell continued her meltdown and Micah began formulating his escape. Before he made good on his newly hatched plan of action, however, Mrs. Marbell shook off her tears and rose like an angry goddess of retribution. “Micah Marbell,” she thundered, “You are grounded for the rest of your natural life!”
In the end, Micah told his mother everything. He stood up to her wrath much like the liberal members on Jackson’s city council do to the demands of their more conservative brethren: he folded almost immediately and agreed to make every concession required of him. The Great Game was instantly knocked on the head and I didn’t see Micah outside school hours until well into the spring of 1993. Micah didn’t get to play Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past until we were both in college. By the way, the hairpiece was gone that very day, never to be seen from again, well before Micah had been sent to bed without his dinner. Micah and I are sure that some extradimensional beings somewhere are puzzling over its incongruous appearance from out of nowhere, and are either going to war over it or have thrown it into whatever the extradimensional equivalent of an active volcano is.
Micah’s punishment was not limited to the simple restriction of his movements. Mrs. Marbell had a more exquisite punishment in mind, not only for him, but for Kerry and Mr. Marbell as well. Before Micah was sent to bed without dinner on that long ago fateful day, Mrs. Marbell ordered everyone into the living room for an announcement. “It slipped my mind in all the excitement, but I have wonderful news!” she exclaimed.
“Goddamn it, hurry the fuck up. Rainbow Brite’s coming on,” Kerry muttered under her breath. Micah nudged her to be silent because he had seen the look of almost homicidal rage only just held in check beneath Mrs. Marbell’s ear to ear smile.
“The good news is that your grandparents are coming down for a visit. They get here on Monday night!” She smiled like it was the best thing since deep fried butter on a stick, instead of the familial equivalent of jock itch.
Oh, and one other thing. Micah, they’ll need to use your bedroom, so you’ll be bunking with Kerry.” Kerry and Micah both voiced their opposition to this plan as if it had been synchronized, but with Kerry adding a string of expletives to the end of her sentence. Mrs. Marbell gave her children the look a mass murderer receives from the judge after all of his appeals have been exhausted. There would be no recourse. After the events of the day, she would have her way. Micah tried to broach an alternative plan in which he stayed with my family while Grandma and Grandpa Lockwood were visiting, but before his plans got past the ‘umm, ahh’ stage of teenagerspeak, Mrs. Marbell began a growl that would not have been out of place on the African Savannah. “Umm, never mind,” Micah finished, and went off to spend some quality time with himself in the standard teenage boy way in his bedroom. He would have to find more creative ways of spending quality time with himself after his grandparents arrived.
Next week: The Cautionary Tale of Wayne the Whelk