>> Your best friend, D—he lives right down the road. Out here, out where there's only cotton field for miles and Texas sky. Where great behemoths, green-and-yellow, drag themselves across the land in crawls driven by fathers and by fathers' fathers. They conjure up small storms of dust that skip the highways, journey on—conjoin, until they turn the sky a copper tone. And the heat of the sun meets it all and amplifies it. Where down the road is great. Is close. Is fun, when you're only seven, just a kid.
>> Sometimes you go right down the road. To D's house, with its dirt circle drive and big wraparound bush out front, unkept. Like some weak medieval guard. When your mother or your father drops you off, D greets you at the door. He's taller than you are, but not by much, with hair that's dark like yours but straight instead of curly. Like your cousin, he wears glasses—the only other one you know out here who does. His West Texas drawl spills out, so slow yet loose—a reflection of the men out here. The one he will, in time, become. Inside D's house, there's a certain kind of smell you never smell at home: like food left in the sink, and outside dogs, come in. There're socks, and shirts, and underwear, all wrinkled in the hallway, the living room. And D's mom, the first bald woman you'll ever see—your first ever brush with cancer—lounging back against the armrest of the couch. The house is dark, almost cave-like, and D's mom's flowery gown covers her, you think, like some sun-washed gym class parachute. You catch your stares keep falling onto so much foreign skin, what's brown-spotted and stretched out taut on top her head. Her gaze is on the television. Yours—you know it's impolite—is held on her. You've never seen a mother like this before, and when she turns, and when she looks at you, you stumble. Look to the floor. You say Hi to cancel-out the act of being caught like this, your own voice small and smoothed of error like your mother's, and D's mom just laughs. And when D calls from down the hall, you run away. Escape. There's something here that scares you, and you feel the shame in that.
>> Sometimes you go over just to swim. (D has the pool, you have the trampoline.) The pool is big and circular, aboveground. And blue. The floor, the walls, the plastic cover—blue. Outside, you climb the wooden railing that his father must have built, because, well, father's build, you think, and there you stand, on top the deck, and lean your body forward, holding on and reaching out a foot to step onto that cover textured like raised bubble-wrap. You push with your foot at the surface and feel yourself sink in, slightly—the weight of you, even clinging on, pulled down. And when the water chills, you pull right back. You shake your head and laugh, and say, No way. Or something like it. Your foot releases drops that stain the light wood something else, and when you move, the small dark print of your foot remains. It dries quickly in the heat so that it's almost gone just as you leave it. You watch your friend step in and lift his arms as water rises to his chest. His arms are frozen up like this, and they pivot with his slow walk across the pool. You watch him suck in air, hard, fast, as he enters: his stomach caving in and shaking out his body's warmth as he works to turn back the textured cover. He bunches it up and tosses it onto the deck like some great deflated fish, and then he waves you in. Not that bad, D says through gritted teeth, arms still posed above the water. Not bad at all, and he laughs.
>> Sometimes you change in his room, and he changes in the bathroom. Or you change in the closet, and he changes in that crack of space between his bed and wall. Or you change in that crack of space, and he changes in his parents' room. Sometimes you wish you both could change in the same place, together.
>> Of course, you don't yet know enough to label curiosity, these years.
>> Sometimes you go over just to swim. But mostly, you play games. Mostly, the two of you just fight.
>> You both dream big, and endlessly. Stage fights in your backyard. Out where your father burns the trash in large rust-eaten barrels. Where snakes curl up to cool unseen in tall and yellow grass, what catches all the burnt-up bits, the ash. Out where you, too, burn paths behind your house through rows and rows of trees and weeds you call the woods, and all your dogs, they follow you. They squint their eyes and sniff the air and rest under the trailers. And under all that farm equipment: dark metal plows and rounded blades with weeds grown up around them. They border the property, machines. They ring out in ancient languages—metallic screeches, thuds—when your father's there, around.
>> You both yell orders out to nothing. To the air. To that empty space of unplowed field beside the old tin shed, like an arena in your mind. You toss commands to fighting monsters, watch them clash in the dust at your feet: you see their headbutts and their fury swipes, their lightning bolts that spark—that crash, in both your minds.
>> Sometimes you holler out sweet victory. Throw fists to open sky.
>> Sometimes you fall to knees, to broken soil. Pretend that something's died.
>> Sometimes D shuffles through his bag, pulls out the source of inspiration: that near-silver, speckled cartridge. That godlike monster on the front. It's D who breaks down the wall, who opens up a world. When his mother sleeps, door shut and curtains drawn, inside the other room; when his dad's out in the fields. Or when your mother's cleaning, in the kitchen; when your father's in the fields. There's only one machine, and it's D's. It's small, and it's handheld. Purple and transparent. You lean into the screen and turn it over. Run a finger down its back and feel the grooves of its logo. You stare inside to all those inner workings before the machine's passed back again—back and forth and back again, for hours.
>> You both can play for hours. So, of course, you do.
>> Sometimes you both lie flat on floors of messy bedrooms. You sit up, next to outlets. In time, you both lose sleep. Lose privileges. You soon find out what life is like beyond the line of midnight, and it's all an easy sacrifice, you think, and you discover: the time you lose to this, the backlit screens, computer graphics. It all feels worth it. Somehow, in some way.
>> Sometimes the mothers and the fathers pack their children into cars and go to town. It's big kid football, Friday nights. D's only got one year on you, but here—in town—a year's stretched-out. Different. Where down the road you feel you're equals, out here, you feel removed. He runs ahead with friends from class or leaves you in the stands. Sometimes—and here is when you're lucky—D pauses. Waits. Asks for you to come along. You get your mother's nod and rush, step careful down the stairs, to bundle underneath loud bleachers. The grown-ups stomp their feet and make their wild world above sound like it might collapse. Like it's on the brink, like there's nothing in the hollow place to hold it all together. And it's here, beneath the world, you stare in awe and wonder at this other form of inspiration: those trading cards, passed on from kid to kid. Those same sweet monsters. They shine with fire in their eyes, and here you memorize their names, obsess over their images. You might have never loved them without him, you'll think, a lifetime later. Your best friend, then. D.
>> Give it time, and monsters gather in the box under your bed.
>> One day, the phone rings shrill inside the doorway of the kitchen, and your mother, she comes running. She sets a basketful of laundry on the table as she rushes to cut the noise. You watch her straighten up and brush stray strands of hair behind her ear before she answers—as if prepping to be seen. Heard. Your mother's beautiful, and you know this, even then. Her hair falls straight and dark and rests on top small shoulders. Her skin looks smoothed of any age and tan, and in the early evenings—when your father comes back home, or back inside, and head-to-toe in dust—he calls her gorgeous. Says, Hey, gorgeous, and kisses her as if to finalize the statement. But now, the room is ringing. And when your mother lifts the phone from off its cradle, pulls it from the wall, you watch the coiled cord bounce once, then twice, in-place. Silence holds for half a second, and in that silence—stillness. You hear the young self-conscious drawl in your mother's Hello. It's D's mom, on the other end. Sharp twang and cancer-free. Your mother's shoulders fall, and she relaxes. Oh, she says, I'm fine, and, How are you? It's just another call from down the road. You watch your mother nod, nod slow beside her wall of crosses. She's collected them since you were born. (Maybe, even—you're unsure, now—before that.) The one above her shoulder, by the phone, is small and made of once-used things: two thin and dried-up cobs of corn that intersect to form the symbol bound together with brown twine. The thing looks almost gray with age. Your father made it for her, sometime not long ago. Whittled with the cobs on his machine. And here, your mother looks straight-on at you. Twists up the long phone's cord with a finger and says, Oh. An inquiry. A pitch above her breath. Says, I didn't know that, and looks forward, to the phone. Back to the wall of crosses—at all that she's collected. She nods again, and, Thank you. Forms a look like disappointment and hangs up.
>> One day, your mother talks about the monsters. She sits you down and asks you if you know they come from Hell. And you don't know what to say to this. What do you say to this? You shake your head in protest, and you ask her what she means. It was your mother, after all, this mother, who bought you all the cards. Who listened as you named the monsters off and watched you through the window as you played. But here, your mother's features are all lines. Her forehead creases as her eyes begin to narrow, and she licks her bottom lip. Turns down the corners of her mouth. You watch your mother spit out words like sorcery and Satan. Her tone sounds like a parrot's, you think, an echo going on and on, and, Gateways, she says, she calls them. And here, the setting sun glares off the tips of many crosses lined behind her. A wooden one beside the doorway seems to hold a dull white light—an artificial bearing, from the kitchen. Your mother straightens up and brings her hands together on the table. She cocks her head just barely, to the left, in a way that speaks of knowing. What does the Bible say?
>> One day, your mother stands beside the trashcan. With its lid that swings when something's dropped-in from above. She commands you get the box under your bed. To walk your monsters here, to throw them all away. To dump them, in the trash. You wonder where it's coming from, all this, and all at once. Your eyes land on the phone. Your mind lands on D's mom. You feel you want to run away, from here, this room, this house. To meet D down the road. To blaze your trails through brush and rows of cotton, to hide, submerged, in all that blue, that water. Of course, there is nowhere to run out here. When you're only seven, just a kid.
>> So you fight, and then you lose, and, still, your mother's standing by the trashcan. Trapped, you stand up too. Walk slowly to your room. You mutter early curses under breath, and this—you know, today—looks more like bottling hate than swearing. (You won't do that for years, but the bottling will go on. Evolve.) You settle to your knees and feel the carpet of your room dig in like heat. You sniff and shake your head and push a palm against one eye and then the other—both red and both made redder by your rubbing. Unfair, you think, to throw away a world like this. You can't know then that you are grieving in the absence of true grief. That what this is, is practice hiding greater sins, or grieving for the inevitable coming-to-light—the things that you don't know, not yet. And what you do here, now, is just the rounding-out of ritual: you reach beyond the bed skirt for the box that holds what's newly marked a danger. To you, and to your soul. There's contact—when your fingers feel a corner, run along an edge, and grip, and the whole thing's pulled, slow, toward you. Across the carpet. The box slides out from underneath the bed and into light that's dying—the sunlight through the windows dips, is almost gone, and your mother calls like a reminder from the kitchen. You lift the box and hold it close, ahead of you, as you walk. Your mother's arms are crossed. Her body favors weight to one leg, then the other, so that her lean is undecided. It's best, she says, if you want to honor God. And you look down to the box in your hands. Take off the lid and set it on the table. The monsters in the box that stare back, smile. The ones that stare back, beam. And when your mother says your name, you lift your arm and rub it, rough, across your eyes. Your mother presses down the lid so that its mouth is dark and open. And quick, and without thought, you flip what's in your hand and hear what's in the box fall in, and soft, like leaves. You shake the box until its weight feels empty. The lid's released, and then it swings.
>> One day, your father takes a city job, and so your family packs its crosses. The cotton fields are left behind with the machines. The shed. The place you called the woods. All of it: abandoned, or it seems. The truth is that you won't be able to remember what it's like, years later. Leaving such an era. Maybe it's that you got too busy, looking forward to what's next. (Even then—you were looking for what's next.) One day, you see D, then you're gone. You can't, then, know that it's the end, or that these endings are so simple. That that's the way with childhood friendships: there, then gone, for good.
>> One day, it all becomes like ash in yellow grass, and down the road is only memory.
I got here by nostalgia, and home, and the intersection of the two as I see it in my life: video games. I got here thinking about the things I've worshipped: my family's God and Pokémon. And, of course, I got here after Brian Oliu, inspired by his essaying in video games—it's a flattery via imitation.