June 18-21, 1996. The time my brother and I turned a bunch of silly inside jokes into a board game.

It had been two years since I graduated from high school, and I had only heard from two high school friends in the last couple months: Melissa Holmes and Rachel Copeland.  Neither of them was in town during the week that I came home, after the end of the school year at the University of Jeromeville and before the start of my summer class.  Plumdale was not exactly the world’s most exciting place; neither was Gabilan or Santa Lucia or anywhere else in Santa Lucia County.  Santa Lucia was on the beach, but it was usually windy and not very warm, not what I call beach weather.  Gabilan had a low-level minor league baseball team; in the long tradition of unusual team names in Minor League Baseball, the team was called the Peppers.  I went to one Peppers game with my family that week.  The Peppers lost.

Usually, when I came home on school breaks, the only friends I saw were my brother Mark’s friends, who were all 14 and 15 years old.  There was Cody Kaneko, a teammate and opponent of Mark in baseball and basketball whose parents had known mine for decades.  Another one was Matt Bosworth, Boz for short, a unique combination of silly and intellectual who also had no sense of smell, so we could fart in front of him all we wanted.  Mark and his friends and I had a lot of inside jokes.  Many of them came at the expense of Mark’s other friends, like Ryan Lathrop, who always seemed a bit out of it, or goofy Eric Kingston.

Eric Kingston came over one day during the time I was home.  I was in Mark’s room playing Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo, alone, while Mark and Eric played basketball in the backyard.  After my game ended, I went outside to watch them.

“For three!” Mark shouted, shooting the ball some distance from the court. The ball cleanly sailed through the hoop.  Eric took the ball to the back of the half-length court, then he ran around the court, holding the ball instead of dribbling and flapping his arms like wings, making a vaguely bird-like noise that sounded like “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!”

“What’s that?” Mark shouted.  “Traveling!”

“No, it’s not traveling,” Eric explained.  “It’s the Flying Bacaa.  That means I don’t have to dribble.  Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric shot the ball from just a few feet away; it missed.  All three of us started laughing hysterically.

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” I crowed, running around the yard and flapping my arms in imitation of Eric.  Eric and Mark started laughing harder.

After Eric and Mark got tired of basketball, all three of us went back inside to Mark’s room, trying to decide what else to do.  I saw a Monopoly game through the open closet door, and suggested, “Let’s play Killer Monopoly.”

“Okay,” Mark said.

“Killer Monopoly?” Eric asked.

“Yes,” I explained.  “It’s like Monopoly, but with a few extra rules.  We use the house rule about getting money on Free Parking.  And also, there’s no limit to how many houses and hotels you can build, and you can build more houses after you build a hotel.”

“Can’t you always do that?”

“Not according to the actual rules.”

“Well, that’s how I’ve always played.”

“But the most important rule change is, when you land directly on Go, instead of the two hundred dollars, you get a bomb.  And if you land on someone’s property and you don’t want to pay rent, you use the bomb to blow up their houses and hotels.  And if you use two bombs, the whole property goes back to the bank.”

“That sounds cool,” Eric said.

We began playing, aggressively buying property.  After a few times around the board, Mark had all three of the light purple properties.  He landed on Free Parking on that round and used the money to put two houses on each property.  Eric landed on Go on his next turn, just as Mom opened the door to check on us.  Julio, a large orange and white striped cat, one of four cats who lived here, walked into the room when the door opened.

“I got a bomb!” Eric said.

“A bomb?” Mom asked.  “In Monopoly?”

Killer Monopoly,” I corrected.  “I tried teaching it to you a few days ago, but you weren’t interested.  You just said you hated Monopoly.”

“I do!” Mom said.

“No, no, Julio,” Mark said, pushing Julio away to make sure he did not walk across the board and knock over pieces.

“You come with me,” Mom told Julio, picking him up.  She patted him on the head, saying, “You feel better now, don’t you.”  Turning to Eric, Mom explained, “He had worms in his butt.  But the doctor gave him medicine, and now he’s all better.”  Eric got a horrified look on his face.  He looked at Mark, then back at Mom.  “Oh!” Mom said, laughing.  “You thought I was talking about Mark!  No, I meant Julio.  The cat.”

“Oh!” Eric said, laughing.  I laughed too.

“I don’t have worms in my butt!” Mark shouted.

After Mom left with Julio, I took my turn and landed on Mark’s St. Charles Place, with two houses.  I begrudgingly handed over the rent, leaving me with very little money left.  “I wish I had a bomb,” I said.  “Maybe we need something so you can escape paying rent, but without blowing up the property.  I know!  We should make a Community Chest card that you can keep, like the Get Out Of Jail Free card, and when you play it, you just run away and reappear somewhere else. Like, it takes you the space farthest away from where you are.  It can be the Flying Bacaa card.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Eric squawked.

“We can use the ‘You have won second prize in a beauty contest’ card for that.  I always thought that card was silly anyway.”

Eric went home late in the afternoon.  Mark went out to the living room and put in a VHS tape of shows he had been recording.  First on the tape was a recent episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a popular sitcom starring Will Smith as a city kid who moved in with wealthy relatives to keep him out of trouble.  Will’s cousin Hilary had gotten a job hosting a television talk show, and the family was talking about William Shatner being a guest on the show.

“Have you seen this one, Greg?” Mom asked me.

“No,” I replied.

“It’s hilarious!  We have to watch it!  You know the show ended this season, right?”

“I don’t know if I knew that.”

“Mark?  Do you have the last episode on this tape?”

“I think so,” Mark answered, sounding annoyed.  “I’ll look for it later.”

I continued watching as Carlton embarrassed himself trying to impress William Shatner, accidentally breaking his tooth with a pool stick and taking him to the dentist. William Shatner got doped up on laughing gas just in time for the interview on Hilary’s show.  Mom and Mark and I laughed hysterically through the entire episode.  Mark pressed fast-forward to look for the finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but stopped when an episode of Beavis and Butthead came on.  “This one!” he said.  “Plant Man!”

“Yes!” I shouted. The show Beavis and Butthead alternated between a silly story involving the two teenage boys of less than stellar intellect and scenes of the boys watching music videos.  In this episode, they were watching a very strange video called “Plant Man,” by Gary Young.  One part of the song featured Gary Young banging on the drums, and Beavis commented that he could play drums like that.  It was not the first time seeing this episode for any of us.

“Beavis and Butthead sure do watch the strangest music videos,” Mom said.

“I know!” I replied.

Mark found the other episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on the tape.  While he fast-forwarded to skip commercials, I said, “I like that idea of adding a Flying Bacaa card to Killer Monopoly.”

“Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” Mark said.

“We also need to get Plant Man in that game somehow.”

“Maybe Plant Man should fight the Monopoly guy.”

“That would be funny,” I said.  “Or maybe we should leave Killer Monopoly alone and make a new game with the Flying Bacaa and Plant Man.”

“And Erzix,” Mark added, using an old nickname for Eric Kingston from a few years ago.  Eric was playing a video game that asked for your name, and he started entering Eric but finished with nonsense letters.  Erzix was pronounced “air-zicks,” with the first syllable pronounced like the first syllable of Eric.

“Yes!” I said.  “The Adventures of Erzix.  You have to go around the neighborhood fighting Plant Man and a bunch of other weirdos.  And you can get items to help you win a fight.”

“If you land on the same space as another player, you have to fight the other player.”

“But first, you have to ask them, ‘Pardon me, sir, but do you have any Grey Poupon?’” I suggested, quoting a TV commercial.

“Yes!”

“Let’s go work on this!”

We went back to Mark’s room with a pen and paper.  I began drawing four glorified stick figures resembling Erzix wearing a basketball jersey and colored them different colors.  “Don’t forget, he has an earring now,” Mark said.  I drew an oversized hoop earring on each of the four Erzices.  (Since I was one to use irregular plurals facetiously, I had decided years ago that the plural of Erzix was “Erzices,” analogous to the plurals of “matrix” and “vertex” being “matrices” and “vertices.”)

“Who else should you have to fight besides Plant Man?” I asked as I drew Plant Man.

“Putnam,” Mark said.

“Who’s Putnam?”

“You don’t know Putnam?  Let me bring you up to Putnam.”

“Huh?” I asked.  Mark told me about some funny-looking annoying kid at his school named Putnam, then proceeded to draw a caricature of a face with a bad haircut and exaggerated features. I cut out the Putnam picture and glued it to the front of a playing card, from a deck that was missing cards anyway. Those cards would become the cards for the Erzix game.

Mark had a stuffed figure of Pepe the Pepper, the mascot of the Gabilan Peppers baseball team, on a shelf.  Pepe was an anthropomorphic jalapeño with a mustache and baseball cap.  As I stared at that shelf, I asked, “What about Pepe? Should he be one of the enemies?”

“No!” Mark said.  “Pepe is awesome!  He should be on your side instead!”

“What about, you can go to the stadium and get Pepe, and then he follows you and helps you in the next fight?”

“Yeah!  Let’s do that!”


The next day, I typed the rules for The Adventures of Erzix on the family computer.  When I went to print the rules, I noticed the printer was not working, so I asked Mom about that.

“We just got a new printer,” she said.  “And we haven’t set it up yet.  We were waiting for you to come home so you could help.”

I rolled my eyes.  The directions for setting up a printer were not difficult.  You plug it in, you put the CD in the computer, and you follow the prompts it gives you.  I did exactly that.  About halfway through the installation process, I said, “It wants you to name the printer.  What do you want to name it?”

“Carlton!” Mom said, after the character from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

“Really?” I asked.  “You’re gonna name your printer ‘Carlton?’”

“Sure!  Why not?”

I typed “Carlton” in the box and waited for the printer to finish installing.  When it was done, I printed the rules to The Adventures of Erzix; it worked.  “Printer works!” I called out.

“Good!” Mom replied.”




Later that week, Cody and Boz both came over on the same day.  While waiting for a turn on the Super Nintendo, I said, “We should play The Adventures of Erzix.  All four of us.”

“Yeah!” Mark said.

“We should play what?” Boz asked.

“The Adventures of Erzix.  Mark and I made a board game.”

“You made a board game about Erzix?” Cody asked.  “I gotta see this.”

I unfolded the game board and set up the pieces as I was explaining the rules to Cody and Boz.  “I have the rules right here,” I said, holding up the typed rule sheet, “so you know I’m not making anything up.”

We began the game, taking our turns and drawing Item cards when we landed on certain spaces.  Boz was the first to land on a Fight space.  He drew an Enemy card.  “Putnam,” he said, laughing at the drawing.  “The items that say ‘roll 1 to win fight,’ I can play that now and I also win by rolling a 1, is that how that works?”

“Yes,” I said.  “With no item, you have to roll higher than whatever the card says.”

“Then I’m going to play this Giant Otter Pop, and hit Putnam with it.”  Boz rolled the die; it was a 1.  “Got him!”

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on an Item space and drew a card.  “Go to Ryan’s Fart Station,” he read aloud.  He laughed, then asked, “What the heck is Ryan’s Fart Station?”

“One time we were playing Legos with Ryan Lathrop,” I explained.  “He found a piece that said ‘STATION,’ it’s supposed to be for a train station, and he goes, ‘I’m going to build a fart station!’  I have no idea what it means.”  I pointed to Ryan’s Fart Station on the board, and as Cody moved his piece there, I added, “You have to shuffle your items and discard the top one.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because Ryan’s Fart Station stinks so bad, it makes you drop something!”

“Like this?” Mark said.  He farted loudly, and the rest of us laughed.

“Eww!” I screamed as the smell of Mark’s fart hit my nose.

“Boz!” Mark exclaimed.  “You’re lucky you can’t smell that one!”

Just then the door opened.  “What’s going on in here?” Mom asked.

“Mark farted, that’s what’s going on,” I said.

“Whew!  I can smell it!” Mom exclaimed, and the four of us all started laughing again.  “Are you actually playing that Erzix game that you’ve been working on?”

“Yes!” I said, proud of my creation.

“I want to see how this works.”

“Okay.  Whose turn was it?”

“Mine,” Mark said.  Mark rolled the die, moved, and landed on Flying Bacaa.  “Ba-caa!  Ba-caa!” he shouted, flapping his arms, as he moved his Erzix token across the board.

“Wha– what?” Boz asked.  “What even is a Flying Bacaa?”

“Some weird Erzix thing,” I said.  “My turn.”  I landed on a Fight space and drew an Enemy card.  “Ogre,” I said, as I drew a card with a drawing of myself on it, complete with Jeromeville T-shirt.

“Ogre, like the nickname that Mark’s baseball team used to call you when you worked in the snack bar?” Mom asked.  “You’re in this game?”

“Yeah.  It was Mark’s idea.  But my Erzix doesn’t have to fight Ogre, because I have this,” I said, playing an Item card from my hand.  “I’m going to use the White Bronco to drive away!”

“Yes!” Cody said, laughing.

“White Bronco?” Boz asked.  “Like O.J. Simpson’s car?”

“Yes!” I shouted.  “My turn is done!  Your turn, Boz.”

Boz drew the Item card that says to challenge another player to a game of one-on-one.  He took Mark’s piece and moved them both to the Basketball Court space. Mark rolled higher, so Boz had to give Mark his last two Item cards.

Cody took his turn next.  He landed on a Fight square and drew an Enemy card.  “Plant Man!” he said, laughing at the drawing resembling Gary Young in his furry green suit. Cody pulled an Item card out of his hand, saying, “I’m going to use this Picture of a Butt, to get an extra chance to win.”

“What?” Boz said, reading the card to make sure he heard right.

“You guys are silly,” Mom said.  


A couple weeks after I moved back to Jeromeville for my summer class, I heard from Mom that Eric Kingston had come over and played The Adventures of Erzix with Mark.  He got a good laugh out of the whole thing, although he said that my drawing of him did not look like him.

We dragged the game out a few more times when I came home on school breaks.  After that, it spent twenty-four years in a closet at my parents’ house, where it remains today.  The game was not a regular activity for our family for long, but it had an important legacy in my life.  It served as a sort of first draft for another silly board game I would write a couple of years later.  The later game had a very similar style of play to The Adventures of Erzix, but with the game rules reworked and improved a little.  Over the years, I taught that later game to many other groups of friends, and I was still playing it regularly for most of my adulthood.  One of my friends who now lives in another state just recently, a few days before I wrote this, dragged out her copy and taught it to some people she knows now.  That other game is another story for another time.

This story has had one more lasting legacy in my life.  In the years since I helped Mom set up Carlton the printer, I have bought three more printers, and every one was named after a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character.  I keep print copies of all of my writing, so if you will excuse me, I need to go print this on my printer, Aunt Viv.

December 24-25, 1995. I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.

“Time to open presents,” I said as I put my dinner plate in the sink.

“First I have to do the dishes, then I have to go upstairs and finish wrapping them,” Mom replied.  “I told you, I’d tell you when I was ready.  Go watch Jeopardy! or something.”

“Mark is watching basketball.”

“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”

“I don’t care about those two teams,” I said, climbing the stairs to my bedroom.  I turned on the computer.  My parents had no Internet service, so the only way I could use the Internet was to dial the same number I used to connect to the Internet in Jeromeville.  Mom told me that it was okay to check my email a couple of times per day, but I did not want to tie up the phone line for hours at a time with an expensive long distance call, so I was not chatting on IRC or reading Usenet newsgroups from my parents’ house.

I listened as the modem made the sounds associated with checking my email.  It began with a standard dial tone, followed by the tones of the number I had to call to connect to the University of Jeromeville network, but this time there were eleven tones, not seven, since I was calling from outside the area code.  A series of hisses, clicks, high-pitched beeps, whirs, and other unintelligible sounds followed this, until I saw a progress bar indicating that my messages were downloading.  When the messages had all downloaded, about a minute later, the computer clicked and disconnected.  I had last checked my email when I woke up this morning, and four new messages had come in since then.  Three of them were jokes that people had forwarded me from someone else, and I had seen all of them before.  The fourth message, which was sent early this afternoon, I paid more attention to.  It was from Brittany, a girl in Texas who was one of the first friends I made on the Internet, a year a half earlier when this computer was brand new.  This was the first I had heard from Brittany in about a month.


From: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Sun, 24 Dec 1995 01:44 -0600
Subject: Re: hi

Greg!  I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing.  I’ve been really busy with school.  Classes this year have been so much more work than high school was.  I feel like I did ok on all my finals though.  Studying for finals pretty much took up all of the last few weeks.  But now I can catch my breath until spring semester starts.  How did your finals go?  Are you back with your family for Christmas?

–Brittany


I used to get emails from Brittany just about every day for most of the last school year, my freshman year at UJ and Brittany’s senior year of high school.  But over the last several months, I had heard from her less and less as her life got busier. I clicked Reply and began typing.


From: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
To: swimgirl17@aolnet.com
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  It’s good to hear from you!  I’m glad you did well on finals.  What are you taking next semester?  Do you have any fun plans over break?  Do you know yet where you want to transfer after you finish community college?

I think I did well on my finals too.  I only had three this year.  I’ve been at my parents’ house for about a week.  We’re going to open presents later tonight.  We always open presents the night before Christmas, because the night before my 9th birthday, I was so excited to open presents that I couldn’t sleep, and I kept Mom awake all night.  Ever since, so that I’d be able to sleep when I was a kid, we always open birthday and Christmas presents the night before instead.  Tomorrow, we’re going to church, and then my grandma’s house in Gabilan, the next town over.  My aunt and uncle and cousins will be there, so we’ll have more presents to open.

My mom also wants to go see my grandma’s neighbors.  Their daughter is a senior in high school, she’s taking physics, and Mom volunteered me to tutor her.  I don’t particularly want to spend my break doing homework with some stranger.  I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things.  That’s how I ended up with the summer job at the bookstore.  But at the same time, maybe it won’t be so bad, because I get to hang out with a girl.


“I can’t find bows,” Mom called from her bedroom.  “Do you care if one of your presents doesn’t have a bow?”

I minimized the window in which I was typing my message to Brittany and opened the door.  “Mom, I tell you every year, we look at the wrapping paper for like two minutes and then tear it off.  I don’t care what the wrapping looks like.”

“Well, I want it to look nice.  Gifts are supposed to have bows.”

“I really don’t care.”

“If you really don’t care, then, I’m done.  Are you ready to open presents?”

“Sure.”

I saved my unfinished message to Brittany and turned the computer off, following Mom downstairs.  I would have more to write after I was done opening presents.

“I hope this is the one you asked for,” Mom said as Mark opened a box.  Inside was a University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball jersey.

“Yeah, this is it,” Mark said, admiring his present.  “Thank you!”  Mark lived and breathed basketball, and he had favorite players on many different teams as well as several favorite college basketball teams, none of which were anywhere near our house in Plumdale.  I preferred to be a fan of local teams, but most of the top college basketball programs were on the other side of the country; North Carolina, for example.

I grabbed a box with my name on it next; from the size and weight, I guessed that it continued clothing.  I pulled out a gray shirt with red writing and tan highlights: BAY CITY CAPTAINS, it said.  “Thank you,” I replied.  The Bay City Captains were my favorite pro football team, the only sports team that I followed closely that year.  The Captains won last year’s championship and, despite having lost the final game of the season that morning, would advance to the playoffs again this year. I made a note to myself not to mention the Captains shirt when I finished my email to Brittany, given what I knew about her football allegiances.

We continued opening presents.  I got a new pair of jeans, and some blank audio cassettes, for making copies of CDs and listening to them in the car.  My car had no CD player.  Mom handed me one final gift, a box about the size of a book, but much less heavy.  “You didn’t ask for this, but I saw it and figured I had to get it for you,” Mom explained.

“Ha!  This looks hilarious!” I shouted as I tore the wrapping paper and read the label underneath.  It was a computer game, Beavis and Butthead: Virtual Stupidity.  I read the description on the back of the box.  It was an adventure game; the player controlled Beavis and Butthead as they walked around the streets of Highland, making mischief and trying to impress Todd, the local delinquent who the boys misguidedly admired.  But then I saw something on the label that made me feel panic mixed with disappointment.  “I can’t play this,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mom asked.

“It’s for Windows 95.”

“Oh… and that means there’s no way it’ll run on your computer?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”

“That would be expensive.  And my computer isn’t very powerful; it would probably run very slowly.”

“I’m sorry,” Mom said.  “I didn’t even think to look.”

You never do, I thought.  I considered bringing up the time Mom completely missed the “explicit lyrics” warning label when she got Aunt Jane one of Adam Sandler’s comedy albums a few Christmases ago, but I decided not to say anything.

“We’ve been meaning to get a computer for us,” Mom continued.  “So you can play it here when you come home for spring break.  Right?”

“Yeah.  That works.”

After we were finished opening presents, I went upstairs.  I was disappointed that I would not be able to play the Beavis and Butthead game, but I tried not to let my disappointment show.  Christmas was always stressful for Mom, and I already felt a little frustrated with Mom because of the way she had volunteered me to tutor Monica Sorrento in physics without asking me.  I turned on the computer and finished my email to Brittany.


We just finished opening presents.  Mom got me the Beavis and Butthead computer game, but it requires Windows 95 and I don’t have that.  I feel bad, because Mom is going to think I’m upset with her.  When I was 13, my computer was broken, and my presents that year were all computer games, and I got so upset and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t play with any of my Christmas presents.  I feel terrible, because now Mom always has to apologize over and over again if any of us asked for something for Christmas and she wasn’t able to find it, or if something she got wasn’t quite right.  I’ve told her every year I’m more mature now and she doesn’t have to worry about it, but I think I traumatized her for life.

What are you doing for Christmas?  Have a great day!

gjd


The next morning, as we drove to church, Mom was rattling off a bunch of things about people whom we might see at church this morning.  “The Lusks all went to midnight mass, so we won’t see them, but they’ll be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house this afternoon,” Mom said.

“Good,” I replied.  Jane Lusk was my mom’s younger sister, and seeing their family, particularly my cousins Rick and Miranda, was always a highlight of Christmas for me.

“And the Sorrentos usually go to Mass first thing in the morning.  But we’re still going over there this afternoon.”  I nodded silently, prompting Mom to ask, “Right?”

“Yes,” I said.  I did not want to make the situation worse, but I felt like I really needed to speak up.  “But I really do wish you would stop volunteering me for things without asking me first,” I said.

Mom paused, taken off guard by my question.  “Are you saying you don’t want to go see Monica Sorrento today?”

“No.  It wouldn’t be nice to back out now.”  Besides, I thought, it isn’t every day that I get to talk to girls, but I did not say that part out loud.

“Okay,” Mom said, sounding bothered.  “But when have I volunteered you to do things before?”

“When you told Paula McCall that I could work at the bookstore over the summer.”

“You were home, you had nothing to do, and you even said you should get a job.”

“I know, but maybe that wasn’t the job I wanted.  I mean, I probably would have said yes if you had asked me, but you still should have asked me first.”  Mom did not reply to that, so I continued.  “And remember fourth grade, when most of my class was mean to me, and you invited all four of the kids who weren’t mean to me over for play dates.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted.  I was trying to help you make friends.”

“I wanted to make friends, but I wanted them to be nicer to me at school.  I didn’t want them at our house.  And in sixth grade, when we had to babysit Jonathan Hawley once a week because you thought I might want to play with someone from my class.  He was so annoying!”

After a few seconds of silence, Mom replied, “He was annoying, wasn’t he.  I’m sorry.”

“Just ask me first next time you tell someone you think I’d like to do something.”

“Okay.  I promise I will.”

“Thank you.”

“And you’re sure you’re still okay with going to the Sorrentos today?”

“Yes.”

After church, we exchanged presents from the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house.  Grandma got me new socks, and Aunt Jane got me another Bay City Captains shirt, a little different from the one I had opened at my parents’ house.  Rick’s present from Mom was a Captains hat that looked very similar to my shirt.  I suspected that Mom and Aunt Jane had bought all of the Captains merchandise together when they went shopping together earlier in the week.

After about another hour of sitting around eating and playing games, Mom asked if it was okay to go next door to the Sorrentos’ house now.  “Okay,” I said.  I got up and followed Mom next door, waiting nervously on the porch behind Mom as she rang the doorbell.  The Sorrentos were a large family, and they lived in a large two-story house.  They had five girls; Monica was 17, the oldest, and the youngest was in elementary school.  Mom had known the Sorrentos for years; Mom and Aunt Jane and Mr. Sorrento and his sister all went to high school together.

A few seconds later, I heard footsteps and the clicking of a door being unlocked; the door opened, with Mrs. Sorrento on the other side.  “Hi, Peggy!  Hi, Greg!  Merry Christmas!” she said.  I could not remember if I had ever actually met Mrs. Sorrento, but everyone at Our Lady of Peace Church seemed to know who I was, because they knew Mom.

“Hi,” I said.

“Monica is in her room.  I’ll go tell her you’re here,” Mrs. Sorrento said, walking down the hallway.  I stood awkwardly, staring at Mom and looking around at the part of the Sorrentos’ house that I could see from the doorway, until Mrs. Sorrento returned with Monica about a minute later.

“Hi,” Monica said, smiling.  Turning to me, she said, “Nice to meet you,” and shook my hand.  I returned the handshake.  Monica was short and thin, with curly brown hair and brown eyes.

“You needed help with physics?” Mom said to Monica.  “Greg always liked physics.”

“There was something I didn’t understand,” Monica explained, “but I went in to talk to the teacher about it.  I think I get it now.”

So Mom dragged me all the way here to tutor Monica in physics, and now she says she does not need a tutor.  Now I really did not understand the point of all this.  “That’s good,” I said to Monica.  Trying to think of something to say, I added, “I had a bad physics test last year.  High school physics was easy for me, so I didn’t study very hard.  But I started going to my professor’s office hours, and I studied really hard for the next one, and that time I had the highest grade out of the whole class, about 200 people.”

“Wow,” Monica replied.  “I know that’s normal for you, but 200 people in a class sounds kind of crazy.”

“Yeah.”

“So how do you like Jeromeville?”

“I like it.  It’s a huge school, but I’ve found smaller communities to get involved with.  That’s important.”

“Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about colleges, but I’m going to stay home and go to Hartman for the first two years.  I’m probably going to apply to Jeromeville, though.  And U of the Bay, and Capital State, and Central Tech.  I know those for sure.”

“That sounds good.”

“Greg applied to Central Tech too,” Mom added.  “But not Capital State.  Right?”

“Yeah.”

We continued making small talk with Monica and Mrs. Sorrento for about another fifteen minutes.  Mom and Mrs. Sorrento talked about people from church whom I did not know, and Monica and I talked about school and classes.  Mr. Sorrento and two of Monica’s sisters also appeared to say hi.

“Are you ready to go back to Grandma’s house?” Mom asked.

“I think so,” I replied.  Turning to Monica, I added, “And you’ll let me know if you need help with physics or anything like that?”

“Sure!” Monica answered.  “Let me get your contact information.”  She went back to her room and returned with a pen and paper, on which I wrote my address, phone number, and email.

“Can I get yours too?” I asked.  “Well, I know your address.  Do you have email?”

“My dad does.  If you write me there, he’ll pass it on to me.”  Monica wrote her phone number and Mr. Sorrento’s email on the piece of paper, tore that part of the paper off, and gave it to me.  I put it in my pocket.

“Thank you,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you too!” Monica said, smiling.

“Thanks for coming over,” Mrs. Sorrento added.  “It was good seeing you guys.”

“You too,” Mom said.

As soon as we were out of earshot, walking back up to Grandma’s front door, Mom said, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”

“I know,” I said.

“And I promise in the future, I’ll ask you before I tell someone you’ll do something.”

“Thank you.  Can we just drop that now and enjoy the rest of Christmas?”

“Sure.”

I still thought it was a little strange that Mom seemed to make such a point of Monica needing help with physics, but then Monica told me she did not even need help.  I could think of two possible explanations for how this happened: either Mom misunderstood whatever Mrs. Sorrento had originally said about Monica not doing well in physics, or the physics thing was entirely made up and Mom was just trying to help me meet girls.  Either one was very possible, knowing Mom.

Monica and I kept in touch off and on for the rest of that school year, and I saw her in person occasionally on future visits to my grandmother’s house over the years.  We never did become close lifelong friends, nor did anything else happen between us, but that was just part of the cycle of people meeting each other and growing apart naturally.

Since that day, though, Mom really did get better about not telling people I would do things for them without asking me first.  When situations like that came up in the future, Mom would say things like “I’ll ask Greg” instead of “Greg would love to do that.”  And that was what I really wanted, to be treated like an adult and be allowed to make my own decisions.  Being a parent and watching children grow up is a difficult transition, but a willingness to communicate and listen helps everyone get through it.

December 4, 1995. A silly new shirt and the best day of bowling class.

In early 1993, when I was in high school, a new television show took the world by storm… at least it took the teenage boy world by storm.  Beavis and Butthead was a cartoon on MTV about two not-so-bright high school boys.  The show featured the boys failing miserably while trying to act cool or meet girls, with clips in between of the boys delivering pointed commentary on some of the weirdest music videos ever made.  The usual public voices complaining about the lack of morals and virtue in entertainment were all up in arms about this show.  I, however, enjoyed it for the brilliant satire it was, and I also laughed at the dumb jokes about poop, sex, and private parts.  At the beginning of my senior year of high school, my friends talked me into playing Butthead in a school skit.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of a crowd that size, and it felt so freeing.  I did not have cable at my apartment in Jeromeville, but I still watched Beavis and Butthead sometimes when I was at my parents’ house.

On the last day of Monday classes  of fall quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, a week before finals started, I got out of the shower and got dressed. The previous Saturday afternoon, I received an unexpected package in the mail from my mother, something soft in a large envelope.  Inside was white folded fabric, with a note saying, “I saw this at the mall the other day and thought you would like it.  Love, Mom.”  I unfolded the fabric; it was a T-shirt, with a picture of Beavis with his shirt pulled over his head, his arms bent upward at right angles, and a crazed look in his eyes.  I AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO! was printed at the bottom in the usual Beavis and Butthead font.  A recurring plot line on Beavis and Butthead involved Beavis consuming too much sugar or caffeine and transforming into his alter ego The Great Cornholio. He would then go on incoherent rants about bungholes and Lake Titicaca while responding to others with “Are you threatening me?”

I wore the shirt for the first time that morning, although I put on a jacket over it before I left the apartment.  I could see blue sky behind the clouds outside, but it was too cold at 8:25 in the morning for one layer, and it would probably not warm up much today.  I started to walk outside to catch the bus, but then, remembering something I had to do later that day, I walked back inside and grabbed a postage stamp from my desk, putting it in the front pocket of my backpack where it would not get lost.

I walked to the bus stop across the street on Alvarez Avenue.  A large crowd was standing there; I had a bad feeling I would not get a seat on the bus.  When I boarded the bus, I stood with one hand grabbing the rail at the top, almost falling over once when the bus made a sudden stop later.

About halfway through my first class, math, I took off my jacket, appearing in public with the Great Cornholio shirt for the first time.  As class was leaving, Jack Chalmers made eye contact and pointed at my chest.  “Nice shirt,” he said.

“Thanks.

“That show’s funny.  It’s so dumb.”

“I know,” I replied.  I told him about the time I played Butthead in high school.

“That’s great.  That must have been fun.”

“It was!”

Bowling class was right after math on Mondays and Wednesdays.  I left Wellington Hall and walked to the far side of the Memorial Union building to the bowling alley in the basement.  I did not know anyone from my bowling class well, and none of them said anything about the shirt when I took my jacket off.

Frank, the instructor, got our attention a few minutes later.  He had told us at the beginning of the quarter to just call him Frank, but it still felt strange to me.  He was an instructor, I felt like I should have called him Dr. White… but can you even get a Ph.D. in bowling?  Maybe Mr. White.  But he said to call him Frank, so I would call him Frank if that was what he wanted.  “We have two classes left,” Frank said, “and there is no final for this class.  So we’re just going to bowl, like we did last week.  Get in groups of four to a lane, and use what you learned.  But I added something special for you today.  I put a few red pins in with the regular white pins, and if the head pin is red and you bowl a strike, you get a coupon that you can exchange here for a free game in the future.  If all three pins in front are red, and you bowl a strike, everyone in the class gets a free game.”

I could hear a few students audibly excited about the prospect of winning free games.  I was frustrated at the beginning of the quarter, as I had had to unlearn all of the wrong ways I had bowled in the past, but I thought I was getting used to some of the techniques we had learned from Frank.  I found a ball that fit me and brought it to lane 9, which was not yet full.  On my first frame, I hit four pins with my first roll and two with my second… maybe I had not learned as much as I had hoped.

About three frames in, I heard Frank call out, “Red pin over here!” I looked, and someone on another lane had a red pin in the front.  If she bowled a strike, she would win a free game.  I watched as her ball rolled wide of the head pin.

Every couple minutes, I could hear someone getting Frank’s attention when a red pin showed up in the front of the lane, and two bowlers had won free games by the time a red pin was placed in the front of my lane.  It was not my turn when it happened, though, and the student on my lane missed the strike.

I did get one strike and a few spares in that first game, and I finished with a score of 109, about average for me.  I bowled a second game and scored 102.  It appeared I would have time for one more, but my arm was getting sore at this point, as often happened after I finished two games.

The reason I found it difficult to control the ball the way Frank taught was the same as the reason my arm was sore: the ball was heavy.  Frank said at the beginning of the quarter that the ball should be one-tenth of my body weight.  But I was a pretty big guy, and one-tenth of my body weight was around 22 pounds.  The heaviest bowling balls were 16 pounds, and I could not control a 16-pound ball well.  I thought a lighter ball might be better for me, but most of the lighter balls had finger holes too small.  My right thumb naturally has a wide spot that requires an unusually large thumb hole.  I found a 14-pound ball that just barely fit my thumb and brought it back to my lane.  I was not sure if I would get in trouble for using a lighter ball, but the rule about one-tenth of my body weight did not seem to be an official rule of bowling.

Switching to a lighter ball paid off.  I bowled a spare and a strike in the first two frames of the next game.  At the start of the third frame, a red pin appeared in the head position for the first bowler on my lane; his roll went just about an inch wide of the head pin.

“Nice try,” I said to him.  “You’ll get it next time.”

“Thanks,” he replied.  “You’re off to a good start.”

“Thank you.  I hope I can keep it up.”  When my turn came, though, I hit five pins on my first roll and three on my second.  In bowling, a strike or spare is scored as 10 pins, but for a spare, the total of the next roll is added to the score for the spare frame.  For a strike, the next two rolls are added to the strike frame.  So my strike in the second frame was scored twice, as a bonus of 10 added to my first frame spare, and as my score in the second frame when I actually rolled the strike.  Because I got a strike, the score for the second frame would include an additional bonus equal to whatever my next two rolls hit.  The result of this scoring system is that these boni add up quickly with consecutive strikes, or with spares followed by strikes.  After three frames, my score was 46.  That was not a bad score for me for three frames, but I had cooled off after my good start.

It did not take me long to heat up again.  I got another spare in the fourth frame, and consecutive strikes in the fifth and sixth.  I was not the only one heating up in the bowling alley; by the time I rolled my consecutive strikes, three more students had won free games with red pin strikes.  When I stepped up to the lane for my turn in the seventh frame, I let the fan blow on my hand for a few seconds, as I always did, while the pinsetter machine swept away the previous bowler’s pins and placed new ones for me.  I grabbed my ball, looked up at the end of the lane, and gasped.

There they were.

Three red pins in the front.

“Frank,” I called out, waving my hand to get my instructor’s attention in the noisy bowling alley.  A few seconds later, he looked up, saw me waving, and then looked at my pins.

“Three red pins over here on lane 9!” Frank called out.  “Free game for everyone if he gets a strike!”  The students who were getting ready to take their turns stopped and put their balls down, all so they could watch me.  I noticed that Frank did not call me by name, probably because he did not know my name.  In a class like this, Frank and I had not had much one-on-one interaction of the type where I had to say my name.

I put my hand in front of the fan for another few seconds, to dry the sweat that had started to accumulate from the pressure of free games for the entire class riding on this one roll.  Everyone was watching me, in my Beavis and Butthead shirt.  I did not want to let everyone down.  I had bowled two strikes in a row; why not just do the same thing I had been doing?

I took a deep breath.  I positioned my feet where I had been positioning them all day.  I lined up my arm where I had been lining it up, a little bit to the left of where Frank had taught us, because doing it my way had been working better for me all quarter.  I brought the ball behind me above my head and began approaching the lane, as I swung the ball down, releasing it and stopping my forward movement before my feet crossed the line.  The ball went sliding and spinning down the lane, headed straight for the cluster of red pins in the front.

CRASH.

As I heard my ball loudly knocking down pins, I watched all ten pins tumble to the lane.  The entire class erupted into applause.  I pumped both fists into the air as I turned around.  The others on my lane all high-fived me as I walked back to my seat.

“Free game for everyone!” Frank announced.  “I’ll give you your coupons as you leave class today.”

That would be the last strike I would bowl that day.  On the eighth frame, I hit seven pins with my first roll and two with the second.  Since I did not bowl a strike or spare, no bonus from the next frame would be added, and I could calculate my score so far: 151.  That was already my second highest bowling score ever, in my life, and I still had two frames to go.  I bowled a spare in the ninth frame and began the tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving only the two pins in the far corners.  It was almost impossible to hit both of those pins with one roll.  I knocked over one of the two pins on my second roll, for a final score of 178, my best game ever.

Frank stood at the base of the stairway leading outside as we left class a few minutes after I finished my third game.  “Good job,” he said as he handed me the coupon.

“Thank you,” I replied. “That was my best game ever.”

“Good for you!”

I had an hour until my next class.  The campus store was right next to the stairway to the bowling alley, and I had an errand to run there.  I walked to the greeting cards and looked through birthday cards, trying to find something simple.  This card was for someone with a very different sense of humor from mine, someone who did not appreciate the kind of sex- and poop-based humor that I had come to associate with birthday cards.  I found one with a drawing of a cake that simply said “Happy birthday!” at the top and “Enjoy your special day!” inside.  I paid for the card and took it to the Coffee House at the other end of the building, looking for a table with an empty seat.  I did not find one, this was a busy time of day, so I sat on the floor against the wall.  I took out my binder to use as a hard surface to write on and filled out the inside of the card.

Dear Grandma,

Happy 75th!  I hope you have a great day!  I just got out of bowling class, and I bowled 178, my best game ever.  Finals start in a week; I think I’ll do okay with these classes.  I’ll be home for Christmas soon.  See you then!

Love,
Greg

I licked the stamp I had brought with me and placed it on the envelope.  I wrote my return address in the corner and Grandma’s address in Gabilan in the center of the envelope.  I put it in my backpack and got out my math book, doing homework for about 45 minutes until it was time to go to chemistry class.  When I finally stood up, my foot was asleep from having sat cross-legged for so long.  I shook my leg, trying to get the blood flowing, and began awkwardly walking toward the mailbox, having to stop and lean against the wall after a minute as my foot became numb again.  After the feeling returned a minute or so later, I continued walking, dropping Grandma’s birthday card in the mailbox.  Next, I walked diagonally across the Quad in the general direction of chemistry class in Stone Hall.

I looked up and saw Liz Williams, my friend whom I knew from my floor in the dorm last year and also from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, approaching.  I saw her look up, and I smiled and waved.  “Hi,” I said, as Liz pointed toward my chest and began laughing.  I looked down to see what she was pointing at.  The shirt.  Beavis.  Of course.

“Oh my gosh, that shirt,” Liz said, chuckling.  “Where’d you get that?”

“I just randomly got a package from my mom the other day.  This was in it.”

“Your mom gave you that?  That’s hilarious!”

“I don’t have cable now, but my brother and I used to watch that show all the time.  And senior year of high school, I played Butthead in a class skit.”

“You?  No way!”

“It felt great, to finally be able to get up in front of a crowd and do something silly.”

“That’s awesome!  I just can’t picture you doing that.”

“That’s why it was so much fun!  How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, except I have a paper due tomorrow that I still need to write.”

“Good luck with that.”

“How are you?”

“I’m having a great day!  I had bowling class this morning, and I bowled the best game of my life.  There were some red bonus pins, so if we got a strike when the bonus pin appeared in front, we got free games.  I won free games for the whole class!”

“That’s great!  I need to get to class, but hey, I’ll see you soon?”

“Definitely!”

I was in a great mood for the rest of the day, all through chemistry and physics classes and the two groups I tutored in the afternoon.  It was my last full Monday of the quarter, my last full Monday of 1995, and my winter break was in sight.  Only three of my classes actually had finals, and math, chemistry, and physics all were typically pretty easy for me.  And after coming through and winning a free game for my entire bowling class, I felt like a hero.

After the bowling class ended, I never really bowled on a regular basis again.  For much of my young adult years, it was something I would do socially every couple months or so.  I used the free game coupon later that school year when some people at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship invited me to go bowling with them afterward.  By the time I reached my 40s, bowling had become something I do very rarely.  I have no specific reason for not bowling anymore; I would enjoy it if I did.  I just don’t make time for bowling, and I don’t hang out with people who bowl much.  That game of 178 is today the third-best game I have ever bowled.  My two games that were higher than that also happened during my UJ years, stories for another time. 

The night after I bowled 178 was uneventful, in a good way.  I went home and studied and did homework for most of the time.  I got a lot of work done, and I went to bed happy and satisfied with how my day went.  As Beavis and Butthead would say, this rules.  Huh-huh.