So, I stayed with my dad sometimes when I was young, maybe four or five. Probably more like four. My dad, this man I’ve spent years blaming and trashing, giving him all that is due to him, even if I’ve been serving it up for nothing more than a person-memory at this point, a rectangular piece of ground given significance because he’s somewhere beneath it. He’d make the drive from Pikeville to Virgie to pick me up and take me for the weekend and then drive me back a couple days later. Along the way I would try not to fall asleep and be generally good cargo. And there were a lot of shipments. I should have had a tracking code. I should have been paid mileage. Paid something for all the time I spent on that road between town and Virgie balled up in the passenger seat or sometimes the back seat if Dad had somebody with him, taking in those exhaust fumes that filled up the car, landing in Pikeville ever so slightly high, a little out of sorts, a little nervous.
A ridiculously popular song during that time was “Mickey” by Toni Basil. Dad would turn the radio up when it came on. It became the soundtrack of my extreme hatred of that exact situation at that exact time of my childhood. And though it probably should have been a song I associated with intense shame and humiliation, it was actually the other way around. I loved it. Still do, even if Toni Basil will forever be connected in some distant form to part of my darkness.
My uncle Bert lived with us. Well, we lived with him. It was his place. Bert could play Ms. Pac-Man better than anybody else in Pike County. I’m just guessing better than anybody in Pike County. It could have been anybody in the state. Or the country for all I know. But he could burn the building down playing that game. This was back in the days of coin-operated machines, those big beautiful units that made people crazy in the 80s. Arcades were everywhere. In Pikeville there was this place called Station Alpha. It was where the old Mexican restaurant used to be before they tore it down and put in a Wendy’s. Right there in that curve coming out of downtown. It had these mechanical bears on a big stage playing music. Performing mechanical bears. But Bert put on such a clinic with Ms. Pac-Man he even outshined the bears.
I remember most clearly Bert standing in this stance in front of the machine wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, his hair combed in that slicked back way of the 60s. The sound of ghosts being eaten and whatever you called the little round pieces Ms. Pac-Man ate, the sound of those dinging and dinging, this music the mechanical bears were jamming, and the chatter from the crowd that always gathered around him. It seems now like this video I watched once or some home movie. My point of view is about twenty feet from the action. People surround Bert like Saturn rings, five, six rings deep, spreading out from him into the rest of the room, galactically feeding on his impossible energy.
The place we stayed with Bert was a worn-out apartment on High Street, this street in Pikeville where a lot of undesirables lived. And these undesirables had kids. These kids were led and greatly influenced by a second cousin of mine, Bert’s nephew Timmy. Even though he was a cousin, I didn’t know much about him. He was a few years older than me and called my grandmother Aunt Ava. My grandmother was his aunt. Somehow this put him in a higher position than me, closer to the source material, a more dignified version of the heritage I claimed.
So, this cousin, this not-cousin, this more purebred Timmy ran this pack of boys around High Street, and they followed him wherever and did whatever to whomever whenever he wanted. That’s the kind of table setting put together especially for little boys who were like myself—frightened, displaced, abandoned, sensitive, withdrawn. But thanks to marathon television, attention was shifted away from me and my weakness. The first night I stayed with Dad and Bert, the very first night, that first weekend in a strange, old, worn down three-room, ground-level apartment with a generally unfamiliar, formally, and still mostly absent father, that first night we all stayed up late.
Friday was when Night Tracks used to air on Superstation WTBS. The show came on at 6 p.m. and played nonstop music videos until 6 a.m. Twelve hours straight through. This was at the very start of music videos and such zealotry was not uncommon with a new toy as entertaining as the merging of song and television. At around 8 p.m. that first night Bert turned on the tiny black and white Zenith and found WTBS. And there was Toni Basil in ponytails and her number 81 captain’s outfit cheering Mickey, cheering me, cheering wide-eyed and beautiful for all of us. For that moment, for the length of time that song lasted, I felt good with my place in the world. Even though my bed was a twin mattress with springs jutting through it like a cluster of sharp angled bones, I went to bed light of heart and mind, and, for the first time in a long while, didn’t dread the cold and wet that came with waking up, unable to dread what had already been set in motion.
Timmy had found out that I peed the bed.
That first morning what jerked me up from sleeping was the storm-cloud sound of the front door swinging open and all this bright light beaming in on me. I raised up in the bed and saw Timmy and three or four other boys standing over me laughing and pointing. Timmy stripped the quilt off me to make sure they could see the stain and my yellow-tinted underwear. I try to remember exactly how I felt, what went through my mind right at that moment, what reaction I could possibly have had, and I can’t. The memory is one of emotions, not recall. It’s a flashback in that way, transporting my brain and thereby my whole body back to that moment so that it racks me all over again each time.
Thinking of what happened in the too-bright High Street living room floor and what I didn’t do but should have done can bring on regret in sheer metric tonnage. I wanted to be like Bert. I wanted to get into a strong stance and take down everything in front of me, just devour it out of the way, draw a crowd willing to stand and watch me summon galactic strength.
Instead, not much improved from there, and I have no memories other than a few frames in which me and Dad are putting together a remote-control airplane. The glue smelling up the area outside the apartment, the gray tones of the plane itself, Dad sitting hunched over at work on getting a piece in place, the failed attempt to fly it when we finished, the position of the sun in the sky. I would remember all this again about five years later when we tried and failed to take an inflatable raft down the rapids at the Breaks. And on and on and on and so many failures that losing count could become as mindless as a reflex.
And what’s strange now is that I listen to “Mickey” while driving to work or washing dishes or sitting on the porch and it blooms inside me contentment and a prickling desire to escape back to those days. Selective memory, protective memory, subjective memory. And Dad is, like I said, just a person-memory now. I see him in fuzzy, quivering swatches, the same way the world appeared through the exhaust fumes on those trips, the bypass road on Robinson Creek streaking along outside the window and Dad announcing his warnings like a promise saying, Don’t go to sleep, Sheldon. Do not go to sleep, saying, If you go to sleep, you’ll never wake up again.