I came home to a sniffling boy in his crib who gave me a gummy smile for looking at him. I picked him up so he could sneeze on me. I set him back down to clean off. I picked him up so he could spit up small white chunks on me. I set him back down to clean off. I decided to leave him in his crib and read a book to him from across the room, something appropriate for a sick baby. I found a self-help book about how to spend time with your kids during baseball season. Zach approved.
I read. Zach looked at me through the slats of the cribs and started to outtalk me. For every word I said, he said two. When I raised my voice, he raised his louder. By the time I got to the second chapter, Zach was screaming in a nasally, happy, pleading way. I picked him up so his diaper could leak on me. I called for his mom.
I needed a new tack. I thought about what I liked to do when I was young and sick. But Zach didn’t have a sister named Jeannene with blond hair to pull. And then I remembered Frogger.
Jeff was my idol. We only got to see him on weekends. On Fridays, when I got home from school, I chewed gum in anticipation so I could give him the wettest cheek kiss I could manage, sometimes losing my gum, sometimes not.
Jeffrey took particular pride in beating me. He was six years older than I was. I got better grades than he did, but he was better than me at everything important. He could spit farther, burp louder, and make Jeannene cry quicker than I could.
One Friday in early ’83, Jeff came rushing in and looked for me. I hadn’t chewed gum. I hadn’t met him at the door. ‘Where’s Jimmy?’ he asked. I heard him from my bed in the room we shared and moaned in a pitiful, but loud voice, ‘I’m sick.’
He yelled back down the hall. ‘But I brought Atari!’
I didn’t even know what Atari was, but it sounded foreign and choclatey and worthy of bounding out of bed. I put my glasses on and bounded down the hall with Superman Underoos and a full nose. Jeffrey was hooking something up behind the TV. There was a box of black cartridges on the floor. He sat down in front of the TV, put a cartridge in. My mouth dropped as the Pac-Man music started to play, sort of. And then the Pac-Man game came on the screen, sort of.
Jeff and I had been going to the arcade for weeks. He spent quarter after quarter on Pac-Man and Defender until he was out of money. And then he spent quarter after quarter until my dollar was gone, too. When it was my quarters he was playing with, he let me watch him play.
The Atari Pac-Man had cheesy graphics and the ghosts blinked, but it was free! I begged for a turn.
‘Well, I want to show you all the games,’ he said.
I looked at the box, there were at least 20 games and all I wanted to play was Pac-Man. He spent three or four minutes on each game, explaining the premise. Between each game I asked if I could play Pac-Man and each time he said, ‘Not until I show you all the games.’
After four hours of seems-like time, he picked up the last cartridge. ‘This,’ he said, ‘this is the best game out there.’ He put it in the Atari. And the Frogger title screen came up. I eyed the Pac-Man cartridge as he began to play.
I froze. The poor frog had to get across the road without getting run over. And then across the water without drowning. My eyes got big waiting for Jeffrey’s frogs to die.
As his last frog died, I grabbed the controller with my snotty hands and began to play. For the next three hours, I forgot to eat and I forgot to blow my nose. I sat, shoulders hunched, glasses on the tip of my nose as I played game after game, dying later each time and getting closer and closer to Jeff’s high score.
‘Jimmy, do you want to play catch?’ Jeff asked. ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’m sick.’ I wielded another frog home.
‘Jimmy, do you want to go in the treehouse and eat oranges?’ Jeff asked. ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’m sick.’ I was within a couple hundred points of his high score.
‘Wup,’ he said, ‘three hours are up. We have to let the Atari rest or the plug will get too hot.’
He unplugged it right before I beat his score. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and smiled at him. It was the first time I’d ever beaten him at anything. I had red eyes, a fever, a terrible cough, and a gushing nose. I had never felt better in my life.
After Kris changed Zach, it was time for him to eat. He was still stuffy, so I sat next to her on the couch. I downloaded Frogger to make Zach feel better. He turned my way as the sound began. I used the arrow keys instead of the joystick.
And I set the high score on the first try. I don’t know if Zach felt any better, but I sure did.