I’m eleven years old and there’s only one thing I want for my birthday, for Christmas, Easter and income tax time combined; an Xbox 360. I’m a poor kid, so I have to be savvy. An Xbox 360 in 2007 is a big ticket item. I’ve been getting as much use from my wheezing PlayStation 2 as I can, squeezing gameplay from it like blood from a stone, but I got my hands on Halo 3 at my friend Cory’s house and come on I need to upgrade. But I can’t just ask for it any ol’ time. There’s a select few times you can ask for a thing like that in poor kid land. Income tax time is best; we go out to eat more, cars get fixed, lots of times we move. Normally mom will grab something cool for me and my brother, like a pair of bikes or new shoes.
But tax time has come and past and it won’t return until next March. Something called an alternator ate a big chunk of the money and mom said “Next year.” I can’t wait that long. My birthday is in July, and I figure combined from grandparents, uncles and mom, I can get maybe 80 bucks, and a 360 is 300 dollars.
I collect cans.
I sell my skateboard.
I trade all of my wrestling action figures, AND my wrestling ring, to Scott Redding who lives in the cul-de-sac for a stack of his Playstation 2 games, which I can trade in at Gamestop for credit towards my precious Xbox.
Starting in May, I begin dropping hints to my relatives. When they ask the golden question, I play it cool. “What do you want for your birthday?”
“Oh, I dunno. An Xbox would be cool, I guess.”
Say nothing else. Run off. All chill. Those hints build up. I ask those same relatives for odd jobs I can do. Rake leaves. Cut grass. At one point, I pray for snow because I know I can get ten bucks from Uncle Chris for shoveling his giant driveway. When I get asked what I need money so bad for (and after some wisecrack about me being on drugs) I once again drop the hint: “Oh, saving up for an Xbox, or something.”
Because, being a poor kid, I’ve learned not to ask for things. I’ve learned not to pester, beg, or con. I’ve learned that transmissions break, Semco Energy is Satan, and I need to shut the water off when I brush my teeth. I’ve learned that asking for something might mean your mom buys you the cheaper (but totally the same, right?) version, like when I got a ripoff Ipod from Big Lots that the kids at school made fun of.
So finally, my birthday comes in July and at my party, no friends show up. My relatives do, and we play catch in the yard and eat cake and ice cream. I’m getting older, and let’s face it, weirder, so my family doesn’t know what to get me. I start getting gift cards to Barnes and Noble, and cards that have cartoons on them that say things like “Happy Birthday, Grandson!” and inside, boom, 20 dollar bills. I hug my grandparents tighter than ever because I. Am. that. Much. Closer.
They laugh. “Oh, he likes money!”
I apologize and thank them over and over again. I don’t want to seem greedy and I don’t want to seem spoiled but goddamn, I have never wanted something so bad in my life. I spend as much time as I can at Cory’s house, but he only has one controller, so we have to pass it back and forth, and he takes longer turns than me because it’s “his Xbox and his house.”
Fucking Cory. I can’t wait to hit him in the face with a gravity hammer. I can’t wait to show him a grainy, government cell phone picture of my tv screen, where I beat his zombies level. Not just beat, eviscerate. Annihilate. Destroy.
I’m at 200 dollars. It is the most money I’ve held in my entire life. The PS2 games might get me to 235. I want to cash in my chips and go get some cool new PS2 games but I hold tight. I want to get a new bike, buy food at the summer carnival, get an actual Ipod, not an Iplayer from Big Lots, but I hold.
My friend TJ is one of the those rich kids. Well, he isn’t rich-rich but it seems that way to me. He doesn’t have a lot of chores, his house is full of toys and cool stuff. He lives with his mom and aunt, and they dote on him. Whenever I’m at his house–which is a lot, he has an Xbox too– and his aunt asks him to do a chore, he whines and takes forever to do them, even though he was getting paid!
One day she pops her head in while I’m watching him show me his Halo 3 map and refusing to let me play.
“TJ, can you clean out the garage?”
“Awe, come on Aunt Mary, I don’t wanna–,”
“I’ll give you each ten dollars–,”
“I don’t want to, I always have to do stuff for you.”
I stand up. “I’ll do it!”
TJ frowns. I think he hates me sometimes for being lankier and more athletic than him. More manly. That’s fine, I kinda hate him for having a better life, so it balances out.
“Fine, whatever,” he says.
Aunt Mary shrugs and hands me the money. All of it, 20. I’m gleeful.
The garage really just needed to be swept and a few old boxes dragged to the curb. I did it in a half hour.
200 plus say, 30 in credit, plus 20.
Instead of going home after TJs, I ride my bike down to the long stretch of docks and boat ramps that line the river. The night before, all the boat people had gotten drunk on their houseboats and thrown their cans and bottles into the garbage bins. This astounded me; each one was ten cents! You could return them for actual cash! But then again, if you had a boat, you probably had enough money for an Xbox.
I scavenge a bag and start picking cans out of the trash. Wasps are circling each bin and I get bit a few times, but I find almost 50 cans of sour smelling Miller Lite, Budweiser, Bud Light.
On the last dock a sunburned man in swim-shorts and black sunglasses comes out of his giant, glossy white sailboat and sees me digging in the can near him. He watches me for a second and then says loudly:
“You takin’ cans?”
I straighten up and squint at him. I nod cautiously; this is an adult stranger. According to my mom, D.A.R.E. and the news, all adult strangers are pedophiles, kidnappers or drug dealers.
“Here.” He drags out a bag stuffed with cans. It’s leaking slightly, but I take it and struggle to balance it on my handlebars with my other bag. The man whistles and pulls out his wallet. I hear velcro ripping apart. He holds out a ten dollar bill, making me drop the bags to grab them. He laughs. “You’re saving me a trip to get those damn things out of my boat. Thanks.” He wanders back into a boat as I stuff the bill fervently into my pocket.
Ten plus maybe the twenty five here in these bags? Round down to twenty; it was always better to round down and not be disappointed.
A week later, I’m sitting at 286, and the final fourteen dollars feels insurmountable. Everyone’s grass has been cut. I have nothing else to sell. Snow is months away. School is coming soon and my entire summer has been a sweaty, furious struggle for nothing.
And I’m so close.
I manage to find some pennies, some change, while cruising around on my bike. I find a few more bottles, but the summer is ending and the parties are drying up. My mom suggests a paper route, but the newspaper company hires adults in cars to do it? I ask the party store down the road if they need help. The nice lady who gives me free candy sometimes and looked the other way when I stole when I was younger smiles sadly and says no, they don’t really need anyone.
It’s my first time really saying the word in anger, like my uncles do when fixing a car. Hard. Mean. It sounds adult.
Labor Day arrives and school is a few days away. Labor Day means barbeques with my uncles, and they all come over and grill up food and I play with my little cousins in the yard. They’re young; seven and four, and don’t understand what I’m going through. They don’t understand the need to beat Cory in Halo 3.
Then, a miracle.
My uncle Rob, bearded, tattooed, a beer-drinking booming voice of a guy, yells from the porch: “Petey! Can you ride your bike to the store?”
I toss a ball to the four year old and yell back: “Yeah, all the time!”
“We need buns! And cheese!”
My uncle hands me a twenty, and I’m about to walk away, just another run to the store like I’ve done for butter, milk or pop a thousand times for my mom, when he says:
“Keep the change little man.”
The entire bike-pedal there, I’m doing math. Hot dogs bun are what, 1.99? What was cheese? I thought it was 2.49, but could I be sure? What if it was 3? Sometimes Mike’s Party Store changed prices! But if it didn’t, I had enough. Twenty minus two minus three (remember, round up) was still fifteen. I’d get fifteen back.
The struggle was over.
Sure enough, after I anxiously stare at the cashier as she slowly rings up the cheese and hot dog buns, (sales tax! Was there sales tax? Wait, not on food, right?) and she hands back my change, I receive a ten.
And a five.
I book it home, not bothering to look both ways as I drive my bike off a curb into the road, a sedan blaring its horn at me but I don’t care. I am invincible in that moment. I’m getting an Xbox.
I toss the bag of food at my uncle and immediately go to my room, ripping open my Incredible Hulk piggie bank and tearing out the crumpled bills and shaking out the change. I count it once. I count it twice. I count it three more times.
I have 301.35.
After carefully pestering my mom, she takes me to Gamestop the very next day. I dump my games on the counter, looking up at the dour-faced guy as he scans my beloved PS2 treasures without mercy. My mom peruses the store with a careful disinterest; she avoided these types of stores with an iron will. No Best Buy, Gamestop, Toys R US. Walmart? No way are we going near the electronics. Groceries only.
“You got 31.19 in store credit,” the guy says.
I nod. I point at the Xbox behind his head. “That one please.”
He pulls it down and scans it while I dump my chaos of ones, fives, change, and beer-sticky bills all over his counter.
After a long, agonizing time, he says: “It’s 317.94, you only got 301 here.”
I forgot about tax.
All my calculations, all my blisters on my hands, my skateboard, my action figures, all of it for nothing. Nothing.
My mom wanders over. She glances at the readout, and at my pitiful pile of money. She clucks her tongue. “Forgot about tax, huh?”
“Yeah..” a sob catches in my throat. I haven’t cried in three years. I start to pull my money off the counter.
My mom sets Halo 3 on the counter. And an Xbox live card. “He needs this to play with his little friends, right? Over the web?”
The Gamestop employee nods. He looks very bored.
I’m baffled. I can’t believe it. I look at my mom and feel a huge swelling of pure, fierce love. I hug her around the waist. It was like when I was 5 and fell and cut my knee, and my mom had made it all better.
I clutch the bag with my glorious Xbox against my chest, positively giddy on the way home. I bound up the stairs to my room, pushing aside my measly PS2 and jam the cables in to start it up. The green X appears and the opening noise booms through my tiny TV speakers. I’m in. I’m now faced with the biggest decision of my young life.
Downstairs, my mom yells up at me: “You only have two hours until bedtime! It’s a school night!”
Four years later I’m a junior in highschool. Highschool is a nightmare as it is for everyone, but I’ve collected a handful of friends, kissed a girl and have some of the worst acne a human can have. I wear raggedy clothes and walk to school no matter how cold it is. The other kids know me as funny but kind of mean, and my teachers seem to like me but I’m not sure where I fit. Am I smart enough to be the driven, career kids who seem so much older than me as they study and study and study to take AP exams? Am I athletic enough to join the smooth faced, jersey clad goons who bound down the halls in backwards baseball caps? Am I cool enough and apathetic enough to smoke pot with the kids in band-tees who carry guitars around?
I don’t know. I never know. I feel like a chameleon. I have two friends, Ryan and Isaac, who I talk to a lot. Ryan is a god at Halo 3 and that’s what we talk about mostly. Isaac is fascinated with Call of Duty and is drooling over the new maps and strategies. My Xbox is still alive, now adorned with a tattered red Gears of War sticker. Controllers have died and been replaced. My TV has a thin line through the middle. I have several USB sticks jammed into it to increase the memory.
And some of my closest friends are online.
WendigoPete is flooded with messages, invites to play, asks to help get achievements, squad up in zombies, lead people to glory. There’s a revolving crew of four or so of us, and it seems we cyle in and out of games. I talk to these people more than Isaac or Ryan. Some I don’t even know their first names; this is like an unwritten rule, after a while you’ll learn their real name, or you’ll hear their mom yell it in the background.
CopperStrange619 is a friend I met in zombies. He was very bad at it, had just gotten an Xbox and joined a lobby. I showed him the ropes and soon I had someone who wasready to try and hit a higher round on Nacht Der Un Toten, or Der Reise, and salivated over the prospect of a new map. We knew each other as “Copper” and “Wendi” and, during four hour marathons, we’d talk about movies, Led Zeppelin, girls we had crushes on, how bad we were at approaching them and knowing how to talk to them.
XenoMorphinTime was a science fiction nerd I met playing Gear of War. Dude was quiet in party chats until the perfect moment.
“Xeno, please tell me you’re covering the back window on the stage.”
“Xeno why did I see you just now run over to the window?”
“Oh lookit me I’m Pete I know how to fuckin’ play videogames! Wowwwww”
He did that shit all the time. Just the perfect amount of goofiness and willingness to be the dumb one sometimes, which was a nice change of pace from all the overly aggressive and loudmouths you’d run into.
Copper and Xeno got along, but they didn’t like my best friend, 0wlmanCarmine.
0wlmanCarmine was the absolute worst.
The most foul-mouthed, shit-spewing, trolling wrecking force of a teenager, fart noises in the mic, blocking other players shots, c4 kamikaze on vehicles, game breaking glitches, “bro you suck” type of player. He would say the most shocking, heinous shit just to see how pissed off he could make someone. He once had Xeno arguing with him for three hours about how Phantom Menace was better than any Star Wars movie, to the point where they were yelling at each other in the chat. Xeno eventually rage-quit the party and after a long moment of silence while I tried to nail a trick in Skate 3, 0wlman said quietly: “He’s right though, I hate that movie.”
He had a unique ability to fuck with people, born of the Modern Warfare lobbies and competitive shooter scene. I tended to play racing games and co-op stuff, and had met him through zombies. I was goofing off waiting for a round to get over and went prone in a corner.
0wlman dove on top of my character, and through some odd bug of the game, killed us both and ended the round.
I don’t know, that was funny to me and we were friends ever since. He was a tornado of energy and I think he met his match in me because I simply didn’t react to his chaos, so he turned his energy to making me laugh. A sudden collision as I drove around in GTA trying to find him, only to realize he was above me in a helicopter. Getting murdered over and over by someone in Battlefield, only to finally realize 0wlmanCarmine was in the game too, targeting me for the laughs.
Trying to play cooperative with him was a mess. Same team? Sure Wendi, I’ll fly the chopper. Yeah yeah, get in. Oh yeah I know how to fly. We’re fine we’re fine, I don’t need to pull up. No no, I got it.
–WendigoPete and 0wlmanCarbine died–
Summer of sophomore year I broke my ankle and was stuck inside for 6 weeks, from late June to mid-August. Isaac had fallen in with a new group of people that I was tagging along with a bit because there was a girl, Lindsey, who ran with them, and I was absolutely crushing on her. She wore ripped jeans and spiked bracelets and kept changing her hair. But a bad twist playing football at the park meant I wasn’t going to the fireworks with Issac and Lindsey, and I wasn’t wandering around town getting slurpies with Lindsey, and I definitely wasn’t going to the beach with Lindsey.
But 0wlman was around. He was on almost every time I was. He didn’t acknowledge anything about it, other than to make fun of me for falling (“Learn to walk you fuckin’ jelly boned idiot”) and to harrass me every time I fell behind in whatever game we were playing (“Ah Wendi, you break your fuckin’ leg or somethin’? C’mon I’m waiiiiiting”) but we proceeded to get every trophy in Halo 3 together. And Halo 2. We fought the Flood and Covenant over and over and over, 0wlman refusing to give up, calling the spartan laser a “giant double A battery” and the energy sword “Satan’s lollipop”. We called the Covenant aliens the “IRS” and our goal was to avoid paying our fucking taxes. We called the Flood zombies Agents of Capital One and Mastercard and they could eat shit if they thought we were paying our credit cards.
That summer sealed our friendship, and we were quite certain that we’d be playing video games and calling each other names until we were old men. At the beginning of junior year, I got my first girlfriend and 0wlman was the first one I told. “Wendi with the big DICK” was his reply, which was 0wlman for “I’m really happy for you.”
And then three weeks later when she dumped me for a guitar player, he was happy to call her a bunch of names to make me feel better and deride musicians in general.
Later that junior year two things happened. The first was that an open world racing game called Nitros Sunset came out and I fell violently in love with it.
The second was that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.