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The Pudgy Dictator
Illustration cred: Liz Cleaves
I've entered the game of pricks
with knives in the back of me
Our community shared the backyard, no doubt driving my conservative dad nuts, and proving him a hypocrite if it didn’t. Lucky for him, the community’s rambunctiousness ended with my stepbrother and me. He was towheaded and average sized, nothing shouting athletic about him, despite my dad’s best efforts; either way they were secondhand efforts, worn down after my resistance. My stepbrother would have loved nothing more than to have my resilience. Even though that’s an exaggeration of the real case: a love they and everyone else found odd.
I loved games. Not games of sport. Games of strategy. Games with stakes beyond a point in a column. Games where one action figure disposed of another action figure, but the powers based on his appearance. Fighting tournaments where I fudged results against my own rules, giving precedence to whoever I simply thought looked cooler. Games at school where we made paper robots with fantastical statistic and no balance; those games often ended in stalemates or people beginning to care less. I drew components of games on file cards, tried to print them, failed miserably. My friends and I tried to start companies to develop games. Sometimes they had real-life stakes. I got put on the detention bench for three days because one game (it involved fighting food items, and I will give you a solid gold pair of cowboy boots if you can guess the name) resulted into a crossover with a deadlier game called dogfighting, the rules of which were, “Don’t be the fourth grader who gets thrown to the ground first." This game was something my dad could understand: a notion of masculine honor, sprouting from a debate concerning whose French fries had stronger psychic powers.
They were games about making rules, then me breaking them as I saw fit, no different from any dictator. And nobody wants to be ruled over by a pudgy fourth grader, so the best games were winnable mainly because we had no idea what we were going for.
The best game my stepbrother and I probably ever took apart in we called “Wild Onion Farmers." There were no monsters. Stakes, certainly. We were attempting something akin to actual pioneers: making the land comprehend our vision for it. And, boy, did it never comply. Sticks we were trying to make fenced sections sank in dirt or snapped, or were uneven. We picked it and used them as sort of economy that was barely memorable. And this game we played together. We put aside petty differences to make our frontier habitable. Soon the wild onion ran out and so did our interest in the game.
Or rather, our chewing the onion became cause for concern. I suppose my dad probably said something nice, like, “Get those damn things out of your mouth." My dad also felt the need to control games, and once he joined our game, we found some other way to entertain ourselves. He didn’t seem to understand that our insistence on playing game were a point of disappearance. He, too, had games.
Our family became invested in games as a unit when we began watching "Jeopardy." I’m not sure when it began, but it caught on. They sat on leather couches while my stepbrother and I sat on the floor, experiencing four drubbings a month, the days when my dad had custody of me. I fared better than he did because I had five years on my stepbrother and spent a lot of time as a second grader sucking up encyclopedias.
My dad defeated us, including my stepmother, in "Jeopardy." Drubbings isn’t the word. They were ass-kickings unparalleled. His rules were stone set: no answering while Alex talked. No talking during "Jeopardy," a rule he stole from his own father, who made shut his family up during "Crossfire" with William F. Buckley. My stepmother often came in second: she was an arbiter of particularly useless knowledge, which was fitting, because she dated a member of Urge Overkill, a fact she trumpeted to me as my teenage stole songs in the hundreds using LimeWire. I was the third least clueless, the one with the highest useless knowledge score.
The meetings to play "Jeopardy" were a time to rule some of the chaos that our house trucked in. Everything else was a mess, but "Jeopardy" was not. My dad’s status as an entrepreneur fluctuated. My stepmother steadily quit cooking, stayed in bed all day, nursing hangovers, only coming out periodically. A case of beer came in every night and left in the morning.
We continued to play "Jeopardy" but I know the point the game became manipulative. A few weeks earlier a friend of my stepmother’s stepfather, a guy who came and went out of our life but seemed nice enough, a pudgy guy, not looking that much different from me in my middle college years, showed up. No idea what his business was. I remember he wore a red polo he tucked into his pants. Comparing him to my dad, he had to look good. I remember while he and my stepmother talked, my stepbrother and me sitting in our hot tub, my stepmother stated that "tucking a shirt in gave a man an extra gut." This is the advice that made me look like a ragamuffin in wedding pictures and advice my dad was damned if he followed or ignored.
One of those few weekends I ended up at my dad’s place, Friday night, while watching "Jeopardy," there was a guy on television who looked similar my stepmother’s friend. It was "Final Jeopardy." During the musical break, I pointed out the resemblance to my dad and stepmother. My stepmother stifled a laugh or two and my dad went upstairs. I asked what I did wrong.
“Oh, your dad doesn’t like him,” she said.
I didn’t ask why. I had a good idea.
I only have one more good memory of games and the yard. There was some sketchy figure named Rusty who started hanging out around our house, someone else my dad also didn’t like. He had hair colored like a scarecrow’s weathered straw and didn’t dress much fresher. My stepbrother and I were upstairs when my dad sent us outside. We had no game. We walked around in the slope of grass, talking about what was going on inside. I had heard a few strange rumblings of what was going to happen, mainly from my stepmother, who was also keen on sharing details about her periods and where the conception of my stepbrother happened.
In the yard I told my stepbrother, “I think we’re gonna be okay.” No pudgy dictator could have changed the ending. She ran off to Tazewell, maybe with Rusty, stepbrother in tow. I stayed with my dad. Freshman year of college, in Carytown, we walked around and he mentioned the strategic games I used to play.
“I’m glad you snapped out of that period,” he said.
What he didn’t know was my creative advertising degree was a Trojan horse to get an English degree and he was shut out of the decision making process. I never snapped out of the period. I just left the yard.