Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Fifteen: Military Liturgy

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I knew I couldn’t go long without a job, so I tooled around Sumner in my truck, which seemed to be grateful to be off the Alcan and back on civilized blacktop. It took a dozen applications and three interviews, but I managed to land a spot as a stock girl at a grocery store called the Red Apple. I have to admit, the work was pretty brutal, especially when it came to the canned goods.
            Given my cashiering experience, however, I knew I wouldn’t be stocking for long. Within a month, I was moved up to checkout, and life was good. I always liked cashiering. The multi-tasking always keeps things interesting: weigh the produce, take the coupons, swipe the ATM cards (“Cash back with that?”) all the while maintaining a conversation with the customer – remembering their names, their habits. Carol Mastere, schoolteacher, buys an unbelievable variety of hair care products. John Varna, guitarist for a wedding band, likes those fruity malt liquor drinks. I took great satisfaction in the idea that part of my job was to engage people.
            Harvey was also hard at work – setting up his game room. But I really had no grounds to complain. Whether from his own savings or a generous sendoff from his family, he had cash aplenty, and was nice enough to pay the deposit and first month’s rent. He found a used console and TV, hooked up the sound to a stereo from Goodwill, and was off on his adventures. Some days, I would leave for work with Harvey plugged in, jiggling the control stick as he leaned forward on an office chair, and return eight hours later to find him still there. I had no evidence that his butt had ever left the seat.
            Perhaps I am naïve in the ways of gaming, but all of his favorites seemed to be ultra-violent. The gore-lust of the post-adolescent male is well-known, but it didn’t match up with the mellow young man from the Signpost Forest.
            His particular favorite was Katacomb, in which the protagonist prowls an endless network of subterranean chambers – very bleak and industrial – trying to off an army of mutants and cyborgs before they off him. When he shot these critters, they exploded in a detailed quick-flash inventory of everything that had once been on their insides. Harvey’s nickname for Katacomb was Kill the Fucks.
            His second favorite was Squadron Zero, a situational game in which the protagonist leads his men through constantly shifting World War II scenarios (you could choose from European, North African or Pacific theaters). The game demanded constant split-second decisions about the men and their movements. Wrong choices met with immediate and graphic punishment: hand grenades, strafing runs and mortars that separated men from their limbs with splashy relish. The part that freaked me out the most were the sniper attacks. Private Rodriguez would be resting on a log, calmly discussing a poker game or his girlfriend’s latest letter when a bullet would penetrate his temple and his eyes would go cold, like someone had turned a switch. Once all his men died, the captain received a vivid image of his own demise, his vision blurring out as a wash of blood drifted over the screen.
            The game’s language was peppered with what you might call the military liturgy: words like freedom, glory, duty, honor. I was always skeptical of such words. WWII seems like one of the few times they weren’t being used largely to gain power or line someone’s pockets. To Harvey, though, it was a pivotal element of the game. He began his sessions by raising a tiny American flag along the TV antenna – with the help of a small rope-and-pulley attachment – while humming the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then he cranked himself up on two cups of strong black coffee, served lukewarm so he could down them like shots of tequila. After that, he fired up the stereo and played “All Along the Watchtower” – the Hendrix version. He said there was something about the “crackle” of it, the chaotic intensity, that reminded him of a battlefield. As if he’d ever been on a battlefield.
            Weirdness, yes. Lots of weirdness. But I was duly compensated. For a boy, he was very neat. He began to take an interest in cooking. Whenever I arrived home, he immediately put his game on pause so he could give me a proper greeting. And the sex was outstanding. It was like I had jumped from the bunny slopes to the black diamonds in a single afternoon.
            One night, I got home late, about eleven. I was exhausted – it was just before Labor Day, and everybody was stocking up. Harvey, however, was amped, and incorrigible. He kept teasing all my hot spots until my libido rose from the dead. The intercourse was bruisingly physical, and although I hurt a little afterward, it was a friendly pain – like I was soaking in a tub of my own hormones. I reached over and walked my fingers up his sternum.
            “Not that I’m complaining, but what the hell got into you tonight?”
            He flashed a boyish smile. “I got to level 24 on Squadron Zero. I’ve never been there before. God! It’s so intense! You’re constantly a finger-snap away from everything going straight to hell. You have to decide on the action and execute the action at almost the same moment, or you’re dead. What a buzz!”
            I had no idea what to say. My great physical pleasure inspired by a video game? I was torn between slapping him silly or telling him to by all means, go play some more! I was sitting on the edge of my bed, puzzling this out, when Harvey knelt behind me and started a neckrub. At this, he was an absolute artist. No one else ever applied enough leverage. He could reach all these places far beneath the skin. But there was the pattern again: absolute weirdness followed by immediate compensation.
            “I have other news,” he said. “I got a job.”
            I decided not to look at him; I was afraid I would look too relieved. “Really? Where?”
            “That’s the killer. It’s right across the street – the little center with the pawn shop? On the far side, there’s a store that sells video games. And now, I sell video games.”
            Like an alcoholic working in a bar, I thought, but I bolted my smile firmly in place. “That’s wonderful!”
            “I’m also joining the Army National Guard.”
            And there I was, puzzled again. “I’m not sure I…”
            “My dad used to do it. It’s a great deal. One weekend a month, and a two-week training camp once a year. The benefits are great – maybe even some money for college. And it’s based at Ft. Lewis, which is, like, twenty miles from here. And as far as the danger, you’re only called to duty for floods, riots – the occasional alien invasion. Meanwhile, I get to play with some pretty wicked toys.”
            “Jesus!” I said. “When you get going, you really get going. Just be careful with those toys. I intend to get a lot more use out of you.”
            “I’m sure they’ll keep me in line,” he said. His neckrub stalled out. “Would you mind if I, um… killed some fucks before bedtime? I’m still pretty wired.”
            I turned around and gave him a kiss. “Yes, honey. Go kill some fucks.”
            I rolled over and drifted right to sleep, thinking that this was not the kind of pillow talk that most girls took to dreamland.

Photo by MJV

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