Read “Teenage American Dream” Chapter 4

Note: The current state of Teenage American Dream is a work-in-progress. I’m posting Chapters 1-5 as a sample for things to come, but keep in mind that these are still in rough draft form and do not necessarily represent the final product. I will update this page with revised versions as they become relevant.

Teenage American Dream is currently in the drafting stage. It was previously scheduled for release on April 30, 2016, but due to other projects cutting into development time, this date has been changed to June 30, 2016. As of now, this, too, is tentative, as my life is a bit crazy at the moment.

Anyway, enjoy the preview:

Chapter 4

In the cafeteria, Eric sat alone with his lunch and his thoughts. It was true that he walked Mack to the lunchroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays (his class schedule was reversed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so he had math, English, and psychology, in that order, after lunch on those days), but once he got there, Mack always sat at his girlfriend’s table. Earlier in the school year, Eric sat with them. But the more that Heidi got to know him, the more she didn’t like him, so on Valentine’s Day, she officially banished Eric from their table. Eric had initially objected, but Mack was able to impart some reason in him.

“She has boobs, man,” Mack had told him on February 15th. “You don’t.”

Eric understood Mack’s point, but because he’d never had a girlfriend himself, he wasn’t entirely sure why that mattered. But he accepted it for Mack’s sake.

While he was eating, he spotted Principal Taylor walking by.

Principal Taylor was a short man who walked with a swagger. He always came to school immaculately dressed, like he had some important dinner at the White House to attend to that evening, and kept a permanent smile on his face. He was one of those guys who rocked a comb-over, somehow made it cool, even when it most definitely wasn’t, and complemented it with a silver cap on his right molar. His fingers were adorned in gold rings, and his belt, which could not contain his belly fat, was loosely hitched together by a platinum buckle.

Eric remembered the meeting his parents had with Principal Taylor the next day, and he wanted to know what it was about in case his dad asked him about it again that evening. But when he got up from the table and started chasing the principal down, another kid had gotten to him first.

The kid was fiercely skinny and his hair patchy. His cheeks were sunken and several of his teeth were missing. Principal Taylor was trying to avert his eyes elsewhere when the kid approached him.

“Principal Taylor,” the kid said, “I was wondering if I could borrow a dollar from you to buy an apple. I’m so hungry.”

Principal Taylor tried to maneuver around him. At one point he even noticed Eric staring at him, but he wasn’t eager to acknowledge either teen.

“Did you ask your parents?” Principal Taylor almost placed his hands on the kid’s shoulders to push him aside, but resisted at the last second. He kept them hovering before him nonetheless, then sidestepped around the emaciated teen. The kid turned with him, as if they were engaged in some kind of hands-free dance.

“Yes.”

“Then you’re fine.”

The kid reached out to touch the principal’s elbow. Principal Taylor nudged his body sideways to avoid contact.

“But, my parents were both laid off this year, and we’ve been living off of food stamps,” the kid said. “I’m the oldest of six, and the last to get the leftovers. I haven’t eaten in three days. I’m so hungry.”

Principal Taylor finally found that empty space between him and the door, and he started backing toward it.

“Perhaps one of your classmates can help you,” he said.

“Sir, I’m just asking for a dollar. For an apple.”

“And I wish you luck.”

Principal Taylor was out the door a few seconds later. And Eric still hadn’t managed to ask him the question.

The emaciated kid, meanwhile, was about to cry. Eric approached him, put his hand on his shoulder. The kid was small and young, but with an old face. Probably a freshman or a thirty-year-old war vet in a boy’s body.

“I’m broke,” he said, “but I’ve got food at home. I think my mom packed me a bologna sandwich and some carrots. You want them?”

The kid didn’t bother responding. He just followed Eric back to the table, like a death row inmate who had just been given a pardon, though not knowing why.

***

            Fortunately, Eric didn’t have much homework that night. He had to paint a coffee cup for 3D art class, read Death of a Salesman in its entirety, and solve twenty calculus problems using Cavalieri’s Principle, but he knocked it all out pretty quickly. His math homework took him about five minutes to finish, which he did in art class that afternoon. The coffee cup just had to look like a coffee cup; the teacher never explained how realistically textured or shaded it had to be, or if it needed more than one color. And for reading Death of a Salesman, he knew he wouldn’t understand any of it anyway, so he just read the first and last scenes and let his imagination fill in the rest.

By 4:30 that afternoon, he was ready to play Neanderthal Ninjas, a platformer that mixed prehistoric martial arts with jungle stealth action. The story is that a cutthroat band of caveman businessmen are about to unleash the most nefarious device to ever hit the world: a machine designed to kill off the dinosaurs. The Neanderthal Ninjas, a hidden sect of martial artists who grunt when they speak, are sent by a mysterious figure to stop these cavemen madmen before they can screw up the ecology of the known world. Whether the Neanderthal Ninjas are successful depends on how quickly the player can guide them to the volcanic cavern where the businessmen are readying their machine.

Eric managed to get two solid hours out of his game before his dad came home and spoiled his fun.

“Hey, pal,” he said. “What’s all of this?”

Eric paused the game and looked to see what his dad was referring to. His dad was gesturing at the Playstation 4 sitting on the floor in front of their 25-inch flatscreen television, and the wires that ran from the back of each.

“Is it not obvious?” Eric asked.

“Don’t sass me. I thought your old game system broke.”

“It did. This is a new one.”

“How’d you get it?”

Eric rolled back onto his belly. He liked playing videogames on the floor. Reminded him of the days when he was a kid and all of this stuff was still brand new to him, and the sight of a sprite racing across the screen could still cause him a thrill.

“Come on, Dad? Why do you have to ask so many questions? I just got it, okay?”

“How?”

“I paid for it. How else would I get it?”

“Paid for it with what? You don’t have a job.”

Eric rolled his eyes. His hands were sweating on the controller—largely from the frantic pace of Neanderthal Ninjas’s gameplay, but also in part due to his father giving him the fifth degree.

“Will you just let me play my game, please? You’re interrupting a really hard section here.”

“You get the money illegally?”

Eric sat up and faced his dad head on.

“What are you implying?”

His dad folded his arms over his chest.

“Not implying anything, pal. Flat out asking. Is this an illegal machine?”

“No!”

His dad raised his left eyebrow at him, a signal that meant, “Are you sure?”

“I don’t think so,” Eric said. “I don’t know. A friend sold it to me for cheap. It’s not a big deal.”

His dad raised his other eyebrow as he stared at the television screen. Then he relaxed his face.

“Not sure I trust your friends. This looks expensive.”

“Well, it’s here now and no one’s come looking for it.”

His dad shrugged. Argument over: Eric one, Dad zero.

“Your homework done?” his dad asked, argument apparently not over yet.

“Of course.”

His dad raised his eyebrow again.

“I said of course. Gosh. You get to enjoy your evening after a hard day’s work. Why can’t you let me enjoy mine?”

“Just want to make sure you graduate, pal. You know what happens once you’re released from the safety of your school net.”

“Yeah, yeah, you tell me all the time.”

“Brutality. I want you ready.”

His dad unfolded his arms and nodded at him. Then he scanned the wires running from the machine to the outlet. The plug was inserted into a nest of other plugs on a single splitter. His dad gestured at the rat king of wires.

“I don’t like what’s going on here. This isn’t the same kind of game system you had last time, is it?”

“No, I had a Playstation 2. This is a Playstation 4.”

“What happened to three?”

“You never bought me three, and I never had the money for it.”

“But you have the money for four? Is it cheaper than three?”

“No, Dad. Four is the newer system, so it costs more than three.”

“Then why not just get a Playstation 3, or another Playstation 2? Save your money for your future?”

“Save for what? I’m gonna live here forever.”

“Fat chance at that, pal.”

Eric felt a light stab to his chest. There was his dad reminding him about the other brutal conditions of the “real world”: independence and financial responsibility.

But he didn’t have time to dwell on the future. He had to educate his dad on current matters.

“You can’t go backwards in technology. Playstation 4 costs more, but I’ll get more time out of it. Playstation 3 is already on the way out, and Playstation 2 has been out for years. Can’t get anything new for it anymore, and it’s hard to find even the old stuff. If I bought another Playstation 2, I’d just be wasting my money.”

“So, you’re saying it’s obsolete?”

“Yes. That’s exactly it.”

“And this Playstation 4 here, that’ll never get obsolete?”

Eric sighed under his breath. He did not want to have this conversation. He wanted to save the dinosaurs instead. He kept his thumb steady on the pause button, ready to strike it the moment his dad finally let up on the questions.

“Of course it’ll go obsolete. Eventually.”

“So, you’re still wasting your money?”

This question caused him to drop the controller. He could hear the voice of “practical dad” coming to surface, and he had to stop him now before it was too late. Practical dad would make him return the Playstation 4 and get what would amount to just a partial refund. Then it would have been a waste of money—not the $300 he paid for it, but the $150 he’d lose in the exchange, an act that would leave him $150 poorer and without a game system. That would’ve come out to an economic faux pas, and his dad, of all people, should’ve respected the logic in avoiding that.

“It’s not a waste of money today, Dad. I can still play new games on it. They’ll be releasing new games for at least the next three years or more.”

“So, it’ll be a waste of money in three years?”

“Possibly. But I already got it, so it won’t be for me.”

“So, it’s just a waste of time instead?”

Eric threw his arms up in defeat. There was no reasoning with this man.

“I’m not gonna return it if that’s what you’re driving at.”

“Not driving at anything, pal. Just getting information. Making sure you’re ready to manage your money properly—big part of being an adult. But I still don’t like what’s going on here with these plugs. Too many of them, and your fancy little Playstation 4 here makes me nervous. Looks powerful compared to your last system. I don’t want you blowing a fuse.”

“Because that would be a waste of money?”

“Exactly. And time. Can’t watch my shows if the fuse is blown.”

“I’ll unplug some of the other devices if it’ll make you feel better.”

“What, like my VCR or popcorn machine? Not a chance. Once you start paying the bills, then you get to decide what comes unplugged and what doesn’t.”

Eric picked the controller back up.

“Fine. Can I go back to my game now?”

His dad waved him off.

“You got twenty minutes. Your mom’s making dinner soon. After that, Star Meld comes on.”

Eric grumbled inside. There was no way he was getting the Neanderthal Ninjas into the jungle citadel in the next twenty minutes. He’d have to just screw around gaining experience in the meantime. Save that part of the story for later.

He unpaused the game and went back to it, playing hard for the next fifteen minutes, sweating from his brow, through his hands, fighting evil cavemen furiously until he could level-up and maybe snag a fancy new knife from one of the cave corpses—one made of iron instead of stone perhaps. He kept playing, kept defeating cavemen, right up until the moment the power surged and the fuse blew. Both the Playstation 4 and the flatscreen television shut down. Star Meld was starting in five minutes. His dad would be out here with dinner in four. That gave Eric just enough time to unplug the machine and take it to his room where he could hide it under his bed. He locked his bedroom door just to play it safe—another house rule he’d have to break.

He heard his father cursing in the living room as soon as he retrieved his copy of Death of a Salesman and climbed onto his bed.

A few minutes later, when Eric was certain his dad had calmed down enough to avoid grounding him, he returned to the living room to check on progress. His dad was sweating as he searched the junk drawer for a replacement fuse, but his anger had subsided. Eric took the opportunity to sneak past him to the kitchen to serve up his dinner plate. As Eric tiptoed through the living room to take his dinner to his bedroom, his dad looked up from the junk drawer and stopped him.

“Whoa, pal. Your blowout, your job helping me fix it. You can eat after I get the television on.”

Eric, grateful that his dad didn’t order him to sell his Playstation over this, returned his plate to the kitchen without retort, and stood there waiting for his dad to find a fuse that didn’t already look burned out.

A moment later, someone knocked on the front door.

“Get that, will you, pal?” his dad asked.

Eric answered the door. A friend of his dad’s, Mr. Prister, stood on the other side, framed by the pine trees lining the driveway and glowing slightly from the waning sun reaching ever so close to the bottom of the horizon. He was holding a fishing pole.

“Dad, Mister Prister is here to see you.”

“Hey, Barry, come on in,” his dad said.

Mr. Prister stepped inside, careful to slip the long fishing rod through the doorway without bending it. Eric’s dad left the box on the table and walked over to greet his friend.

“Ah, that’s a nice pole there,” he said.

“Just like I promised,” said Mr. Prister.

Eric’s dad gestured toward the wall behind the dining room table, which was in clear view of the front door, as the living room and dining room shared tight floor space in their small three-bedroom, one-bath home.

“You can just set it over there. Thanks for bringing it by.”

“I’ll win it back from you somehow,” Mr. Prister said.

Eric’s dad winked and smiled.

“Sure you will. Hey, you want some dinner before you go? Lonnie made some beans and okra.”

“Tempting. But Maggie made lasagna before she left, and you know what they say about pasta the second day.”

Eric’s dad patted Mr. Prister on the shoulder.

“Well, at least she’s still looking out for you, right?”

“Gotta take what I can.”

“All right, well, thanks for the pole.”

“I will win it back,” Mr. Prister emphasized again.

“Sure you will.”

Eric’s dad released Mr. Prister’s shoulder, and Mr. Prister left the house.

A few minutes later, his dad found a fuse that was still in good physical shape, so he tried it on the fuse box. The digital clocks on the VCR and DVD player flashed back on, as did the clock on the popcorn maker. Other small devices linked to the same splitter also displayed a show of renewed power, so everything was back to normal. By 7:20, Eric’s dad could finally sit down to enjoy his show.

Except that the television did nothing when he clicked the remote.

“Are you kidding me?” He flipped the controller over and unlatched the battery case. “Pal, get me a coupla double-A’s, quickly.”

Eric fetched two AA batteries from the battery drawer in the kitchen and tossed them to his dad. His dad replaced the batteries and tried to power the television back on again. When that didn’t work, he pressed the button marked “TV,” then he punched in the universal code for that particular make and model of television. Nothing worked. The TV was fried from the blowout.

His dad leaned hard against the back of the recliner and rolled his eyes.

“Pal, hand me the phone, will you?”

Eric retrieved the portable phone from the cradle and passed it to his dad. He dialed a number.

“Hey, Barry, it’s Darryl. Yeah, the fishing pole’s great. Can’t wait to use it. Say, I was just thinking about Maggie and how she’s never around. You pass a lot of time watching television? Yeah? I know you got that one you keep in your bedroom. No, I wasn’t gonna say anything about that. Look, I get it. A man has to cry himself to sleep sometimes. We don’t need to talk about that. I was actually wondering if that’s helping you. I mean, therapy is therapy, but isn’t that why we pay for counselors? How much is that thing helping you cope? Well, yeah, if the picture’s that great, I suppose it would fix me up pretty good, too. Ha, yeah, you do sound better. The magic of a clear screen. It’s hi-def, isn’t it? How many inches? Wow, fifty-five? For your bedroom? I could only imagine how big the one is in your living room. Say, I was wondering if you meant what you said. About wanting to win back your fishing pole.”

The stuff that keeps me awake at night.

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