THE MICROSURGEON WINNER: A DEAD GRANDMA STORY
the last Intellivision game I ever owned; my grandfather bought it for
me a few weeksbefore my grandmother got sick. Her illness came as no
surprise, given her three-pack-a-day habit. She would stay up until
three or four in the morning, smoking and reading in bed, while my grandfather,
an early riser, slept soundly in the living room. Id often heard
my mother theorize that her parents, with their divergent lifestyles,
would never have stayed together had they gotten married in the age
of no-fault divorce. Yet I believe they were happy. It never occurred
to them to measure their lives together against some glossy ideal.
After her chronic
cough became more persistent, the doctors took X rays and found spots
in both her lungs. Further inquiries revealed that the cancer had recently
metastasized to her brain, though it had not yet gotten a firm foothold
there. They started her on aggressive chemotherapy, and the rest of
her body deteriorated along with her tumor cells. There is no need to
catalogue the details of this deterioration you have seen it
for yourself, or you will. I have nothing to add to your current or
future memories, no light to shed on them, no meaning or hope to extract.
Her sickness was a constant whisper in our house, even when it was not
being talked about. In the living room at night, you could hear my mothers
murmuring remorse that shed done nothing to stop my grandmothers
smoking, or her own for that matter, and the hallway walls would carry
her cries of helpless rage through my closed bedroom door.
It took me a while
to get around to playing Microsurgeon; I was still infatuated with Astrosmash.
When I finally did get around to playing it, I was taken aback by its
complexity. Power, brains, antibiotics, tumors, lymph ducts, tapeworms;
it was a lot to think about all at once. But I kept at it, fueled by
morbid, obsessive tendencies, and finally got the hang of the game with
patient #23, a relatively easy save compared to some of the others.
She began the game with lungs in critical condition, brain in serious
condition, and everything else good or fair. I saved her, barely, doing
the absolute minimum necessary to get her brain and lungs up to good
or fair while preventing any of the other fair
systems from falling ill, and made it out through her eye socket just
before my power ran out.
The following day,
my mother took my grandmother to Presbyterian St. Lukes Hospital
for a checkup, where the doctor told her that the chemo was working.
Her cancer had not retreated, but it had not advanced either. My mother
seemed hopeful, which lifted my fathers spirits, and mine. Making
the connections I could hardly expect anyone else to make, I retreated
to the basement for more Microsurgeon, hitting Reset on the Intellivision
until it delivered patient #23. As I got better at the game, I was able
to bring all of #23s systems up to good condition, and once a
body region was in good shape, it stayed that way and never got bad
again. In Microsurgeon, health was forever. Once, when my mother came
down to check on me as I sat cross-legged on my orange vinyl cushion,
I told her what I was doing.
Grammys tumor cells," I said.
Thinking I was being
metaphorical, she kissed me on the head.
I refused to go
to summer camp that year. I had work to do. My resolve was such that
my parents saw little point in denying me what might be my last summer
in my grandmothers company. One day on the patio of her condo,
after swearing her to secrecy, I told my grandmother what I was doing
with the game on her behalf, explaining the whole thing to her in my
disjointed way. She squeezed me weakly to her side and looked out over
Lake Michigan, the wind sending ripples through the top of her terrycloth
turban. I think she believed me.
she said as she lit up a cigarette.
She would occasionally
smoke in my presence, having exacted from me a standing promise not
to tell anyone. Though I knew this was not a thing for her to be doing,
I never asked her to stop; it only made me work harder at Microsurgeon.
Even after all systems were good, I continued to blast away at pathogens,
paying special attention to lung and brain tumors. I would not leave
the body of patient #23 until all traces of disease had been eradicated.
In spite of her
stolen cigarette moments, my grandmothers cancer began to recede.
The doctors, my parents, her friends none of them could conceal
their surprise. I had to fake mine. She began to venture out, holding
onto my grandfathers arm as he led her to their usual table at
Barnum & Bagel deli. We even took her to a movie, An Officer and
a Gentleman, I think it was. It nearly bored me to death, but she didnt
Then, a week before
school started, the Intellivision broke.
Its bronzed top
panels would often get very hot after a few hours continuous play,
but I ignored the warning signs. Four hours into a Microsurgeon session,
some piece of circuitry inside the console apparently melted down, and
it would not play a single game. Nearly breathless, I took the machine
into the furnace room, opened the toolbox and began to unscrew the bottom
to see if I could solve the problem myself. I might have had a chance
I owned a soldering iron and I knew how to use it from the few
Heath kit home electronics projects Id done but my mother
walked in while I was dismantling the machine and made me put it back
together again, prey to irrational fears of my electrocution.
The mustached man
at Archon TV & Electronics was out of new Intellivisions. He suggested
I consider a Colecovision system, the Next Big Thing that had hit stores
that summer. Misunderstanding the source of my disproportionate distress,
my mother offered to buy me one on the spot, but I was adamant: I needed
an Intellivision. I needed this Intellivision. The property or aura
in this machine that had yoked my grandmothers fate to that of
patient #23 might be absent from a new one, and I could not risk that.
Intellivision might have been verging on obsolescence, but I had to
protect what was truly valuable against the encroaching demands of absolute
modernity. The Archon salesman shrugged, and told me hed have
to send it back to Mattel Electronics. It turns out Mattel Electronics
was on its last legs and therefore probably not a good place to send
anything important, but I was unaware of this at the time.
While I waited for
Mattel to complete the repairs, my grandmothers health deteriorated
in step with the weather. She stopped going out, and the smell of death
blew into her dim bedroom from upwind in time. I do not know how I recognized
it, but I did, and with it came the first taste of the helplessness
that had seasoned my mothers life for months. I could not look
my grandmother in the eye.
My parents stopped taking me to see her, and got her a full time nurse
from Belize. Soon, they got the nurse a bottle of morphine sulfate and
an eyedropper. At home, they tried to maintain an air of normality,
but slow death took a grinding toll on everyone, my mother especially.
Every phone call raised a sickening mixture of dread and relief that
she tried to neutralize with Pepto Bismol. When Archon TV & Electronics
called to tell me my Intellivision was in, however, neither she nor
my father was home.
I put on my gym
shoes and ran to Archon myself along the Edens expressway. It was a
mile away, nearly enough to render a chubby, sedentary eleven-year-old
unconscious, but I made it, paid the man most of the allowance money
Id saved over the past few months, and trudged back home with
the Intellivision under my arm.
I was very thirsty,
but I went straight to the basement without water and summoned up patient
#23. I killed every wrong thing in that body, every tumor cell, every
pernicious virus, every spark of the malicious world, I played and played
without regard for score or status, and maybe it was a glitch in the
programming or maybe it was something else, but the game lasted far
longer than it should have. My power readout stopped declining, and
the tumors stopped appearing all together. The game gave up.
Dizzy from thirst, brow salty with dried sweat, I stumbled upstairs
with the Microsurgeon cartridge in hand to find my mother and father
entering from the garage with my grandfather. Grammy was dead. When
they told me, I fainted.
After I came to, drank some water and assured them I was okay, they
took me to see my grandmother one last time. She was just a thing now,
an object that could no longer pretend to be otherwise because it could
no longer tell itself otherwise. Although I had to work up my courage
to touch her hand, it was cool to the touch, not at all unpleasant.
As her body dropped to room temperature, and my mother cried, and my
heavily sedated grandfather slumped listlessly in a chair, I remember
exactly what went through my mind. There were three things, in this
1) When I was six
or seven, back before my fascination with the mysteries of the natural
world was bludgeoned to death by a 7th grade science teacher, even before
video games, I would often sit for hours gazing into books on dinosaurs
and prehistoric mammals, pouring over their lush painterly reenactments
of primeval drama, thinking about my own death. Not what would happen
to me after I died I thought about what would happen to everything
else. For the first time in years, I revisited the post-Adam scenario.
The situation was thus:
I was the linchpin
in the machine of forward-moving time, the only thing that kept it together
and propelled it through a fierce storm of regression. When I finally
drew my last breath, the storm would sweep time up in its back-blowing
gusts, causing fern-heavy rainforests to explode through the lawns and
concrete and asphalt, toppling the homes and shops and even the skyscrapers
downtown. Saber-toothed tigers would come to prowl through those forests,
nostrils flaring after a whiff of mastodon blood, and there would be
no defense against them. Everything would keep going backward, through
the triceratops and anklyosaurus to the trilobite and beyond. There
was a gap in my knowledge of a few billion years between the illustrated
dinosaur book and the illustrated astronomy book, but I knew where it
would all end up: in a featureless freezing vacuum punctuated by swirling
masses of super-heated gases. These were the changes that my death would
precipitate. I shared this information with no one.
2) While thinking
about the things Id known from childhood, my thoughts moved naturally
to my secret knowledge of Gods true appearance. From the age of
three or four, I had known he was not the conventional white-bearded
Ineffable, or the burning bush they told us about in Sunday school at
Temple Solel, or the guy nailed to the cross downtown at the Art Institute,
though I found those depictions of the crucifixion entertaining.
No, God looked exactly
like George Reeves, the barrel-chested, beer-gutted, ill-starred star
of the 1950s Superman TV series, wearing the chunky black glasses of
his Clark Kent incarnation. He wore a green and yellow court jesters
costume, the kind with little bells on the ends of its three-pointed
hat, and rode a donkey so small that God had to hunch over and lift
his legs to rest on its mane so they wouldnt drag along the ground.
The poor donkey was a third of his size. It was one small donkey. Though
I no longer believe in God per se, I still know this image carries some
3) I thought about
the Microsurgeon cartridge in my pocket. I knew its effect had been
real. I still know it. For no good reason I could ever fathom, it had
become a fulcrum point between opposing sides of the screen where leverage
could be exerted from one side to the other. If the Intellivision had
been fixed sooner a week, a day, an hour I could have
©D.B. Weiss, 2003