Monthly Archives: February 2012


At the Gaylord’s Department Store, they had a video game called Submarine Commander. It was in the corner, over by the snack bar and made sonar noises as you shot torpedoes at passing battleships. You looked through the lens of a metal periscope, gripping it by two handlebars on the side. This was in the early ‘70s, so the passing battleships were made of cardboard or aluminum, and the missle was a red light that moved across the painted ocean. You had maybe two minutes before the game went dark again, no matter how well you did.

Once a week or so my mother and I went over there—for paper towels, fish food, a crock pot, a garden hose, Halloween candy, or athletic socks. The store smelled of stale popcorn and hamster shavings, both of which Gaylord’s had in great abundance. And throughout the days in between, I could hear the eerie pong of the submarine in my head. I imagined myself the ship’s commander and pretended to receive briefings on the enemy ships seen in the area.

In the parking lot my mother would hold out a quarter for me and say, “This will have to hold you.” She said that because she couldn’t spare another. My mother would wear her pale yellow raincoat because it had deep pockets, and that let her carry her Texas Instruments calculator so that she could total up her items before she got to the register. A few times she had found out too late that she didn’t have enough money and had suffered the humiliation of having to figure out what she would have to put back as impatient customers peered over her shoulder and exhaled loudly. My father had just added a third job to his schedule, and my mother worked to stretch everything as far as it could go.

You probably think this is about the time when my mother realized at the register that she was 17 or 21 cents short, and so I eagerly surrendered my quarter. And how outside she rubbed my hair and told me what a good kid I was. But that never happened. My mother also wore her yellow coat because she could slip in a lipstick or candy bars or Tang packets or a scarf or razors. Sometimes I’d see her empty her pockets with her bedroom door partially cracked.

When we were in Gaylord’s she encouraged me to wander around as she shopped, and I’d meet her in the front of the store, after I played my game. But one Friday afternoon, 15, then 20 minutes went by, and she didn’t show up at the register. I noticed an older kid come into the store and walk over to the game, his skateboard tucked under his arms, and I went over to watch.

His problem was that he fired too early, and seeing the red torpedo land constantly in front of the battleships was excruciating. When he was done he fished out another quarter, which I studied with envy.

“Give me some space,” he said. I stepped back a little, but he did no better the second game. He hit three ships, then walked outside and dropped his skateboard on the sidewalk. I stepped onto the little platform that helped you see through the periscope and stared into the blackness.

“There he is,” I heard from behind. It was the store manager, a guy who looked like he was still in high school and had a chin colored by acne. I had seen him around the store plenty, and he was always smiling, fixing his lips as if he were about to whistle, but he never did.

The woman from the jewelry counter was standing behind him.

“Hey guy,” the manager said.

“Hey,” I said, finally.

“Look, your mother asked me to find you. She’s talking to some folks in the back of the store.” Just then I noticed a police car parked out front, and a police officer with a stomach like a helmet strolled past, his walkie-talkie squawking loudly.

“And she might be a little while,” the manager said, “so how about you and I hang out here for a little while.”

I looked at the woman, whose black hair hovered over her head like a storm cloud, and she offered me her version of a smile before saying to the  manager, “OK, I’m going to get back, then.”

The manager nodded. “Thanks, Myra,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ve seen you around before,” he told me, and fiddled with his red vest. All the employees at Gaylord’s wore red vests.

I nodded.

“You play that game a lot, don’t you?” he said.

I nodded again. I imagined my mother in some little cinder-block room talking to the fat police officer, with Myra slipping back in. I knew she wouldn’t have the same smile for my mother.

“Why don’t you and I play?” the manager said. “I’m a seasoned pro at that game myself,” he said.

“I don’t have any money,” I said and looked down at the dirty floor.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of quarters sheathed in clear plastic. “Guy, I have money,” he said. “No problem.”

He opened up the top and plunked a quarter in, then put the roll over the console. I guessed we might be here a while.

“OK, so show me what you’ve got.” He spoke to me as if I was a neighbor, as if we’d been hanging out for years, as if he didn’t have some hand in keeping my mother in a back room until the police showed up.

The first ship emerged form the right, and before it was even fully visible I fired off my torpedo. The red light made its slow journey across, but I didn’t need to watch it to know it was a direct hit. I kept my eyes trained on the edge, waiting for another ship. The deep pong blurted out of the tinny speaker, and I pressed my face hard against the periscope so that there was no light at all in my vision. I pushed the fire button again, then again and again, and the sound of little explosions filled the corner of the store. The enemy ships were slow and predictable, but they were also relentless.


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In high school our senior year, Nate, Dan, Barton and I decided we would play in the talent show. I played drums, Barton played guitar. Nate didn’t own a bass, but Barton figured he could teach him how to get through a simple bass line on a pretty simple song, if we could get hold of a bass for a few days. And Dan couldn’t really sing, but somehow that didn’t matter much. He wanted to do it. We thought we could probably get through a version of “Louie Louie,” though none of us could figure out the words.

Over the next couple of weeks we made it work, more or less. But Barton wasn’t good enough to handle a solo, and we needed a solo in there somewhere. There was a kid down the street who was always carrying his sax case with him—he played in the marching band. His name was Randy Barrasani. He looked like he was eight years old, only he had this moustache.

We’d never talked to him before, and one day I walked up to him when he was at his locker and asked him if he wanted to join our band, which we were calling Back Alley. He jumped when I started speaking, and he kept his eyes down, which let me study that moustache up close.

“Yeah, OK,” he said.

Two nights before the talent show, he came over to Barton’s garage, where I had set up my drums. Nate had gotten a bass through his older brother and was working on the two notes he was supposed to play. We’d gotten Randy a tape of the song, which he hadn’t heard before, but he came in and was able to nail a solo in no time. He was a like little professional sideman. We high-fived him, and Dan called him Randy the Man. Randy looked, at that moment, like a kid who had just come downstairs to a room full of Christmas presents.

For the show we agreed we’d dress in some outrageous way. Dan wore painter pants and a vest with no shirt underneath. Nate draped a chain over his shoulders, and Barton wore a referee shirt over black pants that he had splattered with white paint. I wore a tuxedo jacket and ripped jeans. Randy showed up in his PE uniform, with a cape tucked down the back of his shirt.

“He looks like a superhero who lives in an orphanage,” Barton said. But we also didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so when we gathered around him we just called out, “Randy the Man.”

We were the fourth act to go on, and when Mrs. Phillips announced us to the crowed, she said, “Next up is Back Alley playing ‘Lovie Lovie.’”

That was the first thing that went wrong.

We walked out, our arms raised already in triumph—except for Randy, who kept his eyes trained on the stage. We were popular—I’m not bragging, I’m just saying what’s true—and the crowd wanted us to win.

I counted off, and we jumped in.

Barton’s guitar was loud—you could barely hear the rest of us, but that was OK. I was keeping us in time, and then it was time for Randy’s solo. We kept playing, and we looked at each other—Nate, Dan, Barton, and I—and it took us a minute to understand what was happening. Randy had forgotten to turn his microphone on, and no one could hear him.

Tara Niles won first place with her solo piano performance of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—instrumental. In second place was Craig Humphreys, who played the banjo. Third place went to five kids from Huntley Park calling themselves Breakin’ It; they danced on some mats.

Nate is apparently a lawyer in Chicago now. Dan fought in the Gulf War, and he came through fine. He’s in real estate a few counties over, and we exchange Christmas cards. I moved with my wife and daughters back to town about nine years ago; and that’s been good for us. It’s the town that we know best. And I run into Barton from time to time, since he never left. It’s not always easy, though. Barton’s been through a couple of marriages. I think he’s seeing a waitress from Bennigan’s, but it’s not clear. And Barton is a hard drinker, so there’s that.

When we do see each other, the conversation always turns back to high school pretty quickly—football games, girls, the teachers. And just as often, the talent show.

“Didn’t even turn on the microphone,” Barton’ll say, in equal parts bewilderment and disgust.

“I mean, what did we get him for, to come out on stage with us in his PE uniform with a cape? With that moustache. Like some Goddamned Burt Reynolds. Oh, man.”

We laugh, and then I try to get us to move on to something else.

One night, Barton calls me—I didn’t even know he had my number. The girls are asleep.

“Dude, you’re never going to believe what I found out.” It takes me a minute to recognize his voice.


“I can’t believe this,” Barton says. “I was screwing around on the computer, and it occurred to me to look up Randy Barassani, see whatever happened to that guy. And dude, he’s like a gazillionaire. He’s some kind of computer CEO or something. He invented some kind of popular computer. You’d know the name. I’m not in front of the screen right now.”

“Huh,” I say.

“Yeah, do you believe it?”

“Wow,” I say.

“But listen to this. Right on their website it says you can e-mail him directly. You know, like that kind of company president that wants people to know that he’ll listen to the Average Joe Schmoe, or some crap. Anyway, I was going to e-mail him and say, ‘Turn on the mic, dumbass.’ Or maybe, ‘You can turn the mic on now.’ Or something, I don’t know. But something about the microphone. Just a single sentence. Anyway, what do you think? That’d be awesome, right?”

In the background I hear a siren pass. I am thinking about my wife, who is at a convention for the week, and I am wishing I hadn’t picked up the phone.

“It was so long ago, is all,” I finally say.

I can hear Barton breathing. “Yeah,” he says. He doesn’t like my response. “But it’s just an e-mail. I’m not trying to blow up his building or anything. Just something like, ‘They can’t hear you—turn on the freaking mic, dork.’”

“Huh,” I say. He is waiting for me to say more. There is a crackling sound on the line, like paper being balled up, like sticks burning. I hear the siren again somewhere around Barton’s house. It is getting closer.

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