Saturday, 07 September 2013 17:22

The Walkthrough by Brandon Mills Johnson

WalkthroughIt was beautiful outside, but I was an inch away from my brother’s computer. A thin ray of sunlight lit up his cluttered desk; it was the only light in his room. As I stared into my reflection in the empty screen, I thought: what have I done?

It’s not that I’d done anything wrong, rather, I hadn’t done anything. I never joined the circus. I never went to space camp. Never started a band. Never asked Suzie Brown out to the dance. I felt like I was just drifting through life, moving from one random event to the next. My internal conflict exploded a few days after graduating from high school, when Dad wanted me to intern at Uncle Bill’s carpentry business downtown. Definitely not my idea of a career.

 

“He’s a great carpenter,” Dad had said. “It’s a good…” He left out the word trade, because most of his statements fade out near the end. When he does finish a sentence, it always comes with a quick clap of the hands, as if he’s congratulating himself on a job well done.

“Dad, I don’t want to be a carpenter,” I shot back.

“Then, what do…”

“I don’t know,” was my answer, and then Dad nodded in a diagonal way that had no discernible meaning.

I sighed and tapped the spacebar, which lit up the screen. I was in the eighth hour of a marathon session of a real time strategy game involving dragons and starships. My mouse hovered over the button to un-pause the action, but I instead tapped escape and went back to the desktop. I leaned back in my brother’s fancy computer chair and found myself thinking again.

“Are you ever going to get your own computer?” My brother stepped through the door.

“When they’re free,” I said. “I thought you were gone for the weekend at poetry camp.”

“Too much nature,” he mumbled as he crashed onto the unmade bed. His long black hair was a mess, in contrast to my neatly trimmed brown locks.

“So you’re not going to be the next T.S Elliot?”

“I prefer Tennyson, as you well know.” I wheeled the chair around to look at him. “You beat the game yet?”

“Stuck on the last level.”

“Of course,” he said, as if I were struggling with a 16-piece puzzle. “I got a walkthrough for it. On the desktop, under the folder…”

“I see it,” I said, clicking on the folder.

“Cool, good. I’m going to sleep now.”

“Wait. Don’t you have another job interview this evening?”

“I can’t do another interview,” he said, sitting up the bed. Maybe it was the darkness of both the room and his clothing, but he looked like he was about to attend a funeral. His voice took on his signature mumbling drawl as he explained, “Their banality kills me. They ask me: Where do you see yourself in five years? I tell them: I have a plan. But, when you factor in variables across five years, I can’t know if I’ll be alive that long!” I knew where this was going. “Do you realize that everyone wants to kill me?”

“Not this again.”

“Yes, this again. Every single person on the planet has it in them to murder me.”

“I don’t want to murder you, Josh.”

“You could, though, everyone could. Say we were the last people alive and you needed meat. You could eat me. And if you could eat me, Joe Blow across the street could, and Uncle Bill could cut me open with a saw and eat my intestines like sausage. Everyone on the planet is capable of killing me.” His hand motions became more animated. “It’s just fact. And they want to know where I’ll be in five years? I might be eating their intestines. You never know.”

I gave him a second to calm down before I said, “That’s dark. The line about eating intestines like sausage, though, was good. Can I use that in a short story?”

“Sure.” He sighed and whispered, “Everybody hates Josh. Including Samantha…” Then, he blurted, “Do you want to be a carpenter?”

He caught me off guard. “Well, I can’t afford college.”

“Mom could afford it.”

“Yeah, well she’s on a four month trip through Europe with her book club.”

“She sure likes her book club.”

“She better like them. She basically left our father for them.”

“No, she had an epiphany and rejected the concept of marriage in favor of more empowering avenues of existence. Her words, not mine. I still used them in a poem though. Maybe I get my creative abilities from her.”

And a few other annoying features as well, I added. “Look, it’s a good opportunity, it’s just, it wasn’t my idea, and now that I think about it, nothing ever is. And what happens if I take over Uncle Bill’s shop? Do I really want to spend my life in this tiny little town where nothing ever happens?”

“Your dilemma, while superficially simplistic, befuddles me on a number of levels with its deceptive depth.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” I said. “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” I spun his chair back around and examined the folder he had mentioned. His files were strangely titled, but I soon clicked on one that read, “The Walkthrough”.

I read the title aloud, “Josh Judge’s Walkthrough for Life.” I asked Josh, “Is this for the board game?” He had already fallen asleep. I softly chuckled and returned to the walkthrough. It was quite long, divided into 13 separate chapters. I began to read the first chapter, titled, “Introduction.”

                

Walkthrough“You must plan carefully in the first stages of life,” I read. “Don’t accept the first job you are offered. This will help set the tone.” I looked back at my brother, who was starting to snore. I continued reading a few paragraphs down. “Girlfriends are the arch-enemies of efficiency. They absorb time and money with little reward. I see no reason to engage in dating unless I intend to marry, which, as laid out in chapter five, I do not plan to do until I am twenty-eight. I will begin choosing candidates at twenty-six and work on cultivating those relationships. While I have experimented with a more “casual” relationship with Samantha Shoemaker, I found the entire escapade grossly un-engaging on an intellectual level. I only visited her six more times, after which I mutually agreed to break off the relationship to pursue other endeavors.”

I shook my head at my brother’s revisionist history.  At the same time, I found the concept of a walkthrough for life interesting. The idea of making a grand plan and sticking to it took root in my brain and wouldn’t let go. More than anything, I found myself wishing that there was a walkthrough to tell me what to do.

“You find the walkthrough yet?” Josh asked, suddenly awaking, apparently fully rested, from a dead sleep. He had been doing that for years, so I wasn’t startled.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied.

“Good.”

 

I checked my watch and said, “I’ve got a week left before the internship starts and I’ve got to make the most of it. You coming with me to Pizza Palace?”

“I already told you there was too much nature. Why do people love nature anyway? Nothing but bugs, sunburns, and fleas. Do you know how many diseases fleas carry? Lime disease, for starters…”

“Your loss,” I said, cutting him off before he went into his rant about fleas.

“Actually, I find that pizza is vastly overrated.”

“Of course you do,” I said as I got up and left. I stepped out into the hall.

“Johnny, there you…” My father was waiting for me. He was wearing a ball cap, backwards, because he thought it made him look cool. He was a small man with gray eyes that were identical to mine.

“Hey, Dad, I was just going down to Pizza Palace. I might see if Jed is there.”

“Okay, son, I was just… We’re out of milk, and you know… Would you mind?” (He was asking if I’d go pick up some milk from the local grocery store.)

“Sure,” I said. “Hey, Dad?”

He licked his lips and scratched his ear. (He was telling me to go ahead.)

“About the internship…”

“Yes, it’s so great that… I’m so proud and… Just, listen to Uncle Bill and… You just have to go out there and make me proud!” He finished with a triumphant clap.

“What if I don’t want to be a carpenter?”

“Else… what?” (What else would you want to be?)

“I don’t know, but…”

“Son, sometimes, you just… you know?” (Sometimes you just have to follow your father’s advice, even though your father is a single man in his forties who works as a video game tester and has no car insurance. And he has no hair, little social life, and a complete inability to communicate with his sons. And his eighteen-year old son knows more about cars than him. How does that happen?) I might have vented some frustration on that last translation.

“Okay,” I said, heading for the living room.

“Don’t…” (Don’t forget the milk.)

“I won’t,” I yelled back as I stepped out the door.

“Good morning, John.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Stevenson,” I said to my neighbor as she watered her bushes. As I walked down our quiet street, many other neighbors wished me good morning. It seemed that an army of retirees was out watering bushes. Was that my future? Wake up, water my bushes, go fix some chairs, and then come back home to my pitiful little homestead?

“Good morning, Johnny!”

“Is it?” I asked Old Man Esau as I turned the corner.

Town hall appeared, surrounded by a multitude of local businesses. Our house was just one street off of the main square, which was one of its few redeeming qualities. As I walked, I kept my eyes on the ground to ensure I didn’t twist my ankle in one of the sidewalk’s many cracks and holes. Finally, I reached Roscoe’s Grocery and stepped inside.

The bell rung and the cashier greeted me. “Hi, come on in.” It was Suzie Brown. Suzie Brown as in, Suzie The-Girl-I’ve-Had-A-Massive-Crush-On-For-Four-Years-Brown. That Suzie Brown. And she’d dyed her long hair blonde, which, if you can believe, made her even prettier. I walked over to the register and said, “Suzie, funny seeing you here.”

“I was just covering a shift for Roscoe. His daughter is sick with measles.”

“That’s great,” I said. I coughed and corrected myself. “I mean, that’s terrible.”

The entire time I was thinking: don’t make it weird. Don’t picture her naked. Just don’t.

I pictured her naked and started to sweat. “Hey, didn’t you get an internship with that carpenter?” she asked.

“Yeah, my uncle, Uncle Bill, the carpenter, I got an internship with him.” Okay, good, stay focused, I told myself.

“Cool. So you’re going to take over as the town carpenter one day?”

“No,” I said. “No?” The second no was me questioning myself, but Suzie probably assumed I was stammering.

“Oh, have you got plans?” She leaned forward and her green eyes started boring holes into me.

“Yeah, I’ve got lots of plans. Good plans. Well-planned plans.” I was just sort of talking nonsense at that point.

“I wish I did,” Suzie said. “I’m going off to business school.” She made a face. “I don’t want be a businesswoman. Do you?”

“No. I’m comfortable being a man.” It took her a moment to get it, but then she laughed. “I just came to get some milk for my father… I mean, actually, I basically take care of the entire household.” I think she knew I was boasting.

“That’s nice. I’ve been taking care of my niece, but she’s going off to prep school this fall so I’ll have a lot more time, or not, with school.”

“You don’t seem too excited.”

“I don’t know why, but sometimes, I’d just like to do something crazy, you know?”

“Yes, I do. I’m thinking about planning a sort of surprise vacation.”

“Oh, cool. I never make plans like that.”

“ I’ve got a master plan, in here,” I tapped the side of my head. “Well, I’ve got to get over to Pizza Palace.” I should add that I’m not actually sure why I didn’t go to Pizza Palace first. Josh would call it fate, but I think I was actually just on autopilot or something. “I’ll come back and get the milk later.” As I headed for the door I added, “You want to come?”

“I’d get in trouble,” she replied.

“Yeah, okay, that’s fine.” The bell rung again, but I didn’t notice any new wings on Suzie as I exited Roscoe’s.

I reached Pizza Palace about two minutes later; it was just down the block. Pizza Palace was designed to look like one of those retro diners from the 50s or 60s. I never can remember the decade. I stepped inside and my nose was assaulted by the smell of burnt bread, sharp cheddar, and fresh marinara. In the center of the dining room was a bar surrounded by small, uncomfortable booths and tall, torn barstools. A line of arcade machines was tucked away in the corner, their flickering screens calling kids like moths to fire. “Jed?” I called.

My cousin, never turning away from the arcade machine he was playing, replied, “Good to see you.”

I walked over to Jed and leaned against a racing game adjacent to him. “You got all the high scores?”

His large, sweaty fingers were furiously tapping buttons and jerking the joystick around. At no point in our conversation did his eyes leave the screen. “I got five. Just beat that one,” he pointed to the racing game, “an hour ago. Some dude named SUZ has the – oh, you see that? -- high score on this one, but I’m – oh, that was tough – working on fixing that problem.” Jed didn’t just play the games. My cousin provided his own commentary, even if he was talking to someone else at the time. He thought it was his duty to maintain the high score on all six machines, and if anything other than JED was at the top of a leader board, he considered it a personal insult.

“Hey, Maurice, can you get me the usual,” I shouted over to Maurice, the owner.

“Sure thing, John.”

“You always get cheese. You need – ten-hit combo, fools! – to have more variety in your life. Oh, look at that shortcut, watch me find that shortcut.”

“Hey, Maurice! Make it a pepperoni, with mushrooms, and lots of other stuff.”

Walkthrough“Getting adventurous?”

“Yeah… I guess.” I wasn’t actually sure what compelled me to order the pizza.

“That’s more like it,” Jed said. “Oh, snap, there goes a life. Yes I would like to continue.”

“I was wondering: why aren’t you your father’s apprentice?”

“Uncle Bill,” Jed began, referring to his father as uncle for reasons I’ve never understood, “says that I am a slacker. He’s – whoa, watch it there! – of the mindset that I should get a real job.”

“What do you do?” I asked him.

“Drug trials,” he replied. “Oh yeah, I’m a little monster skeleton who’s going to take over the world, you can’t kill me. I just did, fool!” He got so excited he slammed his fist onto the machine and gave me a hard high-five. Remarkably, he did it all while still staring at the screen.

“That can’t pay well.”

“Not really, but I just need money for games and a little extra for an occasional dose of crack, uh, cracked ice. Yeah, load up level twelve, I dare you.”

“You seem kind of happy.”

“What? Oh yeah, I just roll with the punches. It’s all about reflexes.” To demonstrate, he rapidly dispatched several pixilated skeletons. “Winning! Anyway, I like my life like this game. I can’t see to the right of the screen until it scrolls, so why think about it? Just roll with the punches and, boom, that’s called a high score!” He high-fived me again.

“You win?”

“Yeah, but I’ve got to run this score up or SUZ will get me again.”

“Yeah,” I said unsurely.

“Your pizza’s up!” Maurice said.

“Thanks,” I said, walking over to the counter and paying Maurice.

“Did he get the high score yet?”

“Yep.”

“Good, ‘cause when he came in and saw that Suzie Brown had beat his high score, he had a holy fit.”

“Suzy Brown is SUZ?” I asked. “Wow.”

“I know. If I were ten years younger, I’d be all over that.” He laughed and flashed his pearly white teeth. The fact that he was a young looking middle-aged man did not make him less creepy.

Maybe you should just wing it, like Jed, I thought. Join some drug trials, take things a day at a time…

I took a big bite of my pizza. It tasted delicious, savory, and maybe just a little burnt, but I kind of liked it that way. “Maybe being adventurous pays off, sometimes,” I thought aloud.

The doors swung open and my Dad stepped in. “Son, why didn’t you…”

“Dad?” I turned around in my seat and saw my father. He was followed, remarkably, by Josh. “Josh? What happened?”

“I told him about your dilemma. He came into my room, very rudely, and assaulted me with his idle chatter. In an effort to salvage my sanity, I tried to distract him by telling him about your doubts. It had nothing to do with helping you out.” I somehow doubted the last part. “He forced me to tag along,” he added weakly.

“Son, you should have told me you had a problem.” He clapped.

“I did.”

“When?”

“Like six times!”

“He kind of did,” Josh said, having a seat beside me and shooting a glance at Jed, who was bouncing up and down with excitement. I took another bite of my pizza.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know! I don’t have my entire life planned out like him!” I pointed to Josh.

“You read my walkthrough!”

“I did,” I admitted. “Later, let’s talk about what really happened with Samantha Shoemaker, okay?” His face turned red with embarrassment. “Look, I don’t have a plan.”

“That’s what worries me,” Dad said, his second complete sentence in a row. “It’s just, I don’t want you to end up like…” He pointed at Jed.

“Why not?” Jed asked. How he heard us from across the room is something I still ponder. “I’m free, man, you’re just – extra life! -- jealous of me.”

“I thought about it,” I continued, “but I don’t want to be like Jed. He’s too reactive. I want to make something happen.”

“No, you need to make a plan, like me. I’ll help you write something down.”

“I don’t want a plan!” I yelled.

“I think I…” (I think I know how you feel.) Dad sat down beside me. “When I was younger, I wanted to… records, you know, records?” (I wanted to make a record.) “I had like this, this, sort of, band, and we…” (Dad started a band with some kids around town.) “Esau was on drums, and Roscoe was on, you know.” (Roscoe was on guitar, I assume.)

“Did you ever play any gigs?”

“No, I was too afraid of being rejected.” He clapped and smiled. “I was afraid to step out my comfort… you know, zone.”

“Are you saying that you wish you’d taken a chance when you were young?” He nodded. “Dad, that’s actually helpful,” I said incredulously. Then I asked, “Dad?”

“Yes?”

“What’s a record?”

“Like a giant CD,” he explained.

“Why can’t you start a band now? Roscoe and Esau are still in town.”

“Yeah, well, bills…” (He has to pay the bills.)

“You could play on the weekends.”

“You could be called the Weekend Warriors,” Jed shouted.

“That sounds,” He scratched his ear and finished, “fun.” He stood up and started to wander away. “Oh, John.” He stopped and turned back to me as if he had forgotten why he was here. “Just do it.” He clapped and concluded, “I’ve got to find…” (I’ve got to find Esau and Roscoe.) He exited just as I finished my slice of pizza with a third and final bite.

“That went well,” Josh said.

“It sure did,” Maurice said, returning from the kitchen. “Did I hear mention of a Samantha Shoemaker? That is one fine woman.” He licked his lips.

“Watch it Maurice, you old weirdo!” Josh shouted.

“Sorry man, I thought you had broken up. Uh, a pizza is burning.” Maurice ran back into the kitchen.

“You should go see her.”

“Support your suggestion with evidence.”

I laughed. “She left you because you had no interest in her, not because she didn’t like you.”

“No one likes me. Everyone wants to kill me.”

“No one wants to eat your intestines like sausage!” I screamed.

“And you said I was a weirdo?” Maurice commented from within the kitchen.

“He’s got a point,” Jed added.

“Stay out of it, guys,” I said. “Go ask her to go with you to your next job interview.”

“That’s not in the plan. None of this is in my walkthrough.”

“I don’t know if it’s from the pizza or something else, but I think I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

“Oh?”

“Life’s no fun if you have an instruction manual. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I want to find out for myself. Josh, there’s no walkthrough for life.” I got up and left him stammering in confusion.

As I was leaving, I heard Josh say, “Maurice, you wouldn’t happen to have Samantha’s number, would you? I had it written down but, uh, I burned it.”

“I sure do. Don’t ask how,” Maurice said.

“Jed, keep an eye on those two,” I said as I walked toward the door.

“I will,” he said. “You just roll with the punches now, you hear?” He slapped the machine jovially. “Ten thousand points!”

“Where are you going?” Josh asked.

“I’ve got to pick up some milk.”

I ran back to Roscoe’s. The bell rang as I trotted to the front register. Suzie put down her magazine and asked, “What happened?”

My reply poured out in one run-on sentence that would have made Josh cringe. “Suzie, I’ve been in love with you for four years and I should have asked you out to prom but I psyched myself out and went to a bar with Josh, don’t tell Dad, but he’s cool now he’s going to start a band and Josh is getting his ex-girlfriend’s number from the creepy dude that owns Pizza Palace and Jed beat your high score and I ran back here for milk but I really came for you and I had this great line about angels getting their wings but I couldn’t find a way to say it without sounding cheesy but now I guess I just did.” I took a deep breath and leaned against the counter.

“You were going to ask me to senior prom?”

“Yeah.”

She laughed. “I thought you didn’t like me. I kept waiting for you to ask but you never did.”

“So you were…”

“Waiting for you to ask.”

“Okay, so now I’m asking you something better: do you want to run away with me?”

“What? Where?”

“Anywhere the wind blows. Who knows?” I smiled. “I’ve got no plans, but I’m not waiting around. Let’s just do it, whatever it is. What do you say?”

She stepped around the counter and kissed me right on the lips. “This won’t end well.”

“Probably,” I admitted. “But I don’t know how this ends and that’s the point.” I took her hand and we walked out of Roscoe’s, the bell announcing our exit.

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