July 14, 2024

Excerpt – Lucky Wander Boy


Microsurgeon was 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. I’d 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 mother’s murmuring remorse that she’d done nothing to stop my grandmother’s 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. Luke’s 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 father’s 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 #23’s 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.

“I’m killing Grammy’s 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 grandmother’s 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.

“Thank you,” 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 grandmother’s 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 grandfather’s 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 didn’t cough once.

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 I’d 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 grandmother’s 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 he’d 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 grandmother’s 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 mother’s 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 I’d 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 order:

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 I’d known from childhood, my thoughts moved naturally to my secret knowledge of God’s 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 jester’s 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 wouldn’t 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 deeper truth.

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 saved her.
©D.B. Weiss, 2003

Lucky Wander Boy


D.B. Weiss was born and raised in Chicago, where he honed his skills on an Intellivision. A graduate of Wesleyan University, he earned a Masters of Philosophy in Irish Literature from Trinity College in Dublin and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He now lives in Los Angeles. This is his first novel.

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