Elliot Harmon




Imperceptibly, gradually,
as one meanders east on 18th street,
the cornhusk dolls in rows on the sidewalk
metamorphose into bootleg

DVDs. Yet something remains, something
in the fragility, the care with which
they're spread on the worn blue blanket.
Will tourists recognize their worth?

Laura has just been named assistant
set designer. She buys a subway ticket while
a shopkeeper crossing San Carlos
carries a piece of plywood. The plywood

carries fifty bobbing-head deerhounds. The dogs
furiously agree with every step.


Though most shops along Mission don't have names,
unless "Keys" is a name or "99¢,"
they do have Dora the Explorer

backpacks, lined-up, creating the fourth wall
between the sidewalk and the shop. Inside,
you'll find the candles, printed with the Virgin

and/or Jesus, looking peaceful,
painted before paintings could be printed
on candles. I was never taught to pray

to Mary, though I found her reassuring.
A man motions to his daughter and she says,
"Excuse me, sir," so he can pick one up.

Sometimes after dark I come to watch
the Christ nightlights and eat a taco.


I said the words "low-grade lymphoma" to myself
all day, looking for associations.
It's like Googling, but without
the computer. I never understand
the subtext in emails from home, which news
is good or bad. The tests don't clarify,

they complicate. I went to Bluegrass Night
at the Amnesia; young Californians
singing like old Nebraskans, like my mother,
like football and communion. It didn't help.
I've learned the days I check my email most
are the days I leave the most messages

unopened. Sometimes instead I open
my window and look at the wall outside my window.



Between 1994 and 1996, Pierre, SD, had the highest suicide rate in the United

"I like to pride myself in thinking of all the little details."
—John Newcomer

In 1981, Midway Games hired John, a man who knew nothing about video games.
In 1982, Midway Games released Joust and I turned one. It's 97 kilobytes,

far smaller than one of those floppy disks that didn't exist yet
and don't exist anymore. And there's only one button—FLAP. I liked that about it

in the summer before I started high school, when everyone I knew was invisible
for twenty-two hours a day and spent the other two playing old video games.

A buzzard speared my ostrich and I yelled out, "You killed Kenny!"
A dumb reference to South Park. "You asshole," said Jason next to me

playing Ms. Pac-Man. Five seconds later he was out the door
smoking behind the building, his trucker cap pulled over his eyes,

trying not to think, leaving her to deal with the ghosts alone.
And that's how I found out Kenny was gone,

the next in a series.
Thirty teenagers die of suicide in two years and

what happens? The town gave up,
wore blank faces, like when the ghosts turn blue,

drove cars, filed reports, walked along Capitol Lake throwing bread
at the geese.

When it began, there were counselors brought into the school
and we spent the afternoon listening to speeches

about grief. In five months
we'd mastered grief. It came in the morning announcements

after girls' basketball and before chicken fried steak.
There were other solutions: the "help me" coupons,

the spiritual revival, teachers allowing us to retake tests.
Each one presented with new optimism, as though

the town had found a cure. "We need to quit messing around,"
I remember an older boy saying at a youth group meeting.

"We need to go down to the Middle School and tell them to cut it out
or we're going to kill them." In his voice was the anger of a boy

who has run out of ideas and only anger remains
so he wields it like the one true thing he has.

The voice of a boy who went to all his younger sister's field hockey games
but, after she died, was sorting through a stranger's closet,

a boy who sweats profusely from his forehead when he's angry
or scared. It was the summer of Joust

and other things.
The summer of the pterodactyl and the summer of getting tired of Joust

and sitting on the curb outside watching a stray dog yap at everyone walk by
with its rehearsed tongue and wagging tail and its hunger.

The thing about Joust is that you can't kill the buzzards;
just their riders. And each rider

carries an egg that will hatch into
another buzzard rider.

All we knew was loneliness.
The drug dealer's high score, 98000,

was always listed just under mine,
and when PBS came in to film that documentary

about teenage depression, this is the corner
where they made the establishing shot. You can't tell, but I'm in there.

You're listening to an announcer
talk about suicide epidemics. I'm inside,

listening to Sean explain
how to beat the Unbeatable? Pterodactyl.

That's what the instructions call it: Unbeatable?
with a question mark. And there's a certain spot where you can land your ostrich

and the bird will fly right into your sword, and you can play forever.
It was a glitch. Every time the pterodactyl flies across the screen,

its path crosses one point, so you wait there for it to come to you
and you will always win.

When John learned about the problem, he was embarrassed,
like he'd finally been revealed as a newcomer,

a weak match for the persistence
of teenage boys.

By his own admission, he's an obsessive creator.
Can you imagine him spending all night

at Midway, taking naps on the lobby couch,
plotting each villain's path on graph paper, killing every bug

long after the Galaga designers have given up and gone to bed and can you imagine him
walking into any Palo Alto arcade to see some kid slaughter the unbeatable

and can you imagine me learning that the guy who beat me up
when I was a kid was dead?

One wanted to go listening to his new Marilyn Manson CD on headphones,
drowning out the gun. I felt sorry for him, not knowing that detail would make it

in the newspaper story, the way that only newspapers can mistake the background music
for the story. Sometimes we'd be sitting

outside the arcade not saying anything. Someone would hold up a newspaper,
and we'd all shake our heads in disbelief.

How many times, we wondered, could the word "sickness"
get misprinted as "trend"?

And then it ended.
There was a Joust 2, but it's really a footnote.

Today is my twenty-fourth birthday
and Kathleen has given me an original concept sketch of Joust.

The drawing is shaded obsessively, but with obsessive love.
It's a knight seated upon his ostrich. The ostrich looks away tiredly

while the knight looks up at the pterodactyl—frightened,
but hopeful, maybe he's asking himself

a question. "Where the hell did you get this?" I ask in awe.
"Ebay," she says. "The guy had no idea what it was."

I prop it on the windowsill—it's early evening and everything is glowing.
We watch the pterodactyl for a minute

in silence
before leaving for dinner.



Mission Street Cycle was like line-writing boot camp for me. Collect all 13. They're dedicated to my mom.


This poem is about the town where I grew up, but some details are changed. I got the biographical details about John Newcomer from the interviews in Midway Arcade Classics.