Another Fake Princess

Nonfiction by Christopher Lowe

1.

All I remember clearly is Super Mario Brothers. Looking back now, I can’t recall who from our family came into town aside from my cousins, Toot and Tonner, who helped us set up the brand new Nintendo. I remember sitting on the hardwood floor – slid as far back from the TV as possible to save our eyes – while relatives and neighbors and friends of the family weaved through the controller cords, talking about my father in hushed voices.

Those few days, we ate casseroles heated in big dishes and buckets of pasta from I Love Spaghetti and Little Caesar’s delivery. Our relatives reached down to touch our heads, our shoulders while we played the game. I remember my mother crying, my brother, stone silent, working his thumbs over the controller. I remember the first time we got through the level 1 dungeon, the first time we mistakenly assumed that we’d saved the princess.

2.

It was my mother who called the ambulance. My father had been sick for days. Just a bad cold, he’d insisted. Nothing he couldn’t get over with some rest, plenty of fluids, and lots of prayer. We’d all gone to the coast for Christmas, to Ocean Springs where my grandparents lived. We opened presents there, my brother and I unwrapping a large box with both our names on it, a Nintendo inside plus two games, Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. My parents returned to Jackson sometime around New Year’s, leaving us for a longer visit. My father had just begun to cough and sneeze when they left. The call came days later. My father had collapsed, was in the hospital, had pneumonia, was not doing well.

The only reason the drive from Ocean Springs to Jackson remains with me is because my grandfather took back roads, a route I’d never seen. It struck me as strange then, seeing those winding two-lane roads. I don’t know if I honestly thought there was only one way to go from one place to another or not, but I can remember being amazed on that drive, as my grandfather took us north. We passed none of the landmarks I’d come to associate with the trip. We didn’t go past Chesterfield’s, where we always stopped for a meal. We didn’t go under the overpass in Hattiesburg painted in the black and gold of the University of Southern Mississippi. The old drive-in theatre wasn’t there, nor was the small backwoods zoo that had hand painted signs advertising lions and alligators, a place I always longed to visit, though my parents never would consent to stopping in such a ramshackle location.

3.

Later, I learned to love The Legend of Zelda. I memorized the map, folded and unfolded the copy that came with the game so many times it tore apart into twenty or thirty separate squares. When we had friends over – John or Graham or Kinsey – I became the fount of all knowledge, the guide. I knew how to get a shield early and how to find my way through the lost forest. When my brother played, I opened the raggedy map on the floor and let my eyes track over each screen, memorizing locations and layouts, ensuring that when my turn came, I’d know how to find my own way.

4.

I could have seen him, but I chose not to. “He’s hooked to machines,” we were told. “He isn’t conscious. He won’t be able to talk to you.” So I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family. I did impressions to entertain them, Goober from Andy Griffith, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker. My voice – still a boy’s – must have squeaked out each word, but they all smiled at me, told me how good each impression was. Now, when I close my eyes and imagine my father in a room down the hall, tubes and cords snaking into him, stubble still defiantly rising from his cheeks, I hear my own voice saying Judy, Judy, Judy in a put-on Mayberry drawl.

5.

It was only Mario that we played those first days. I think the simplicity of the game lent itself to those moments. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to navigate the convoluted world of Zelda. Mario was straight-forward. You move left to right. You jump on Goombas. There is nothing to memorize, no maps or tricks or secrets – none that we knew of anyway. You jump on enemies, hit bricks with your head, collect coins, avoid holes in the ground. Though each castle contains a fake princess, you know that eventually the real one will emerge, beautiful in her pixilated glory. When you find a pipe, you go down it, let it take you wherever it wants you to go.

6.

We didn’t sit in the church for the viewing. Instead, my brother and I were placed in a basement room of our church, an old TV hooked up to a VCR, a Nick-at-Nite tape of old Batman shows playing for us. We watched quietly, the two of us, watched Adam West and Burt Ward launch themselves into the villain’s lair – Joker, Riddler, Penguin – thinking that they might rescue Alfred or Commissioner Gordon only to find themselves snared in some elaborate trap. A vat of boiling oil. A giant mousetrap. A guillotine with a question-mark shaped blade. We watched Julie Newmar turn to Eartha Kitt turn to Lee Meriweather. When it was time, we went upstairs and sat in the straight-back pews for the service, though I do not remember that. I remember sound effects spelled out for me, remember Batman’s moralizing and Robin’s golly-geeing and Commissioner Gordon’s hand-wringing. I remember a narrator telling me that I’d better tune in next week, that the fate of the heroes would be decided then, though I knew as well as the narrator that they would escape, win the day, rescue the captives, return the money, survive a world that only seemed dangerous.

7.

They all left after a time, all the extended family, all the friends. At some point, it was just the three of us. I don’t recall my mother crying after they were gone, though one morning, there were cigarette butts on the ground outside.

“Someone’s been on our carport,” I told her, pointing to the burned down filters. I imagined some shadowy figure, lurking around after we went to bed. My mother shook her head, told me delicately that the cigarettes were hers. That smoking was bad, that we should never do it. That she didn’t actually smoke the cigarettes, just held them as they burned down to nothing. It was, she said, sometimes a comfort to her. I believed her, believed that at night, me and my brother safely in bed, she sat outside through the night, an un-smoked, burning cigarette in hand.

We played through the game, working our way closer to the princess, who, inevitably, was not the princess. Later, we would turn to Zelda. I would memorize the maps, learn the secrets, decipher the rules of a more complex world, but those first days, my brother and I sat on the floor, our mother in the recliner behind us. We took turns, my brother always Mario, myself always Luigi. At the end of levels, we took our running starts, tried to snag the little flag that granted extra points. We played the castle levels over and over, dying in this lava, at the tip of that fireball, but still trying again, learning to time our jumps, learning when to duck and when to stand still.

We had dinners out, my mother too exhausted to cook. At Mazzio’s, having pizza, two Christian Scientists from my father’s church berated my mother for taking him to the hospital, for having the funeral at St. Andrew’s, for going against his wishes in such vital ways. My brother and I stared at our plates, not yet men enough to stop this casual cruelty.

More cigarette butts appeared on the carport.

School started back, and we negotiated our way through the hallways, bore the smiles, the pats on the shoulder, the hugs, the kind words from kids who had once been mean. We forgot our lunches, our homework, were told that it was ok. That it could be understood, at a time like this. That we were dealing with a lot. Our mother was called, and she brought us the forgotten items, always there within ten minutes, always on duty.

At night, after we’d finished our homework and our dinner, we sat on the living room floor and played Mario. Some evenings, I would turn around to look at my mother, laid back in the recliner. Most nights, she would be staring at the TV screen, glass-eyed, but there were times when I’d look back to find her eyelids shut, her mouth opened slightly. I would turn back to the TV, to the game. I would keep pushing buttons, keep the music and the sound effects flowing, their incessant, chiming beep-boop soothing my mother to a few minutes rest, her sons safe in the hands of a simpler world.

chris-loweChristopher Lowe’s writing has appeared widely in magazines and journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and Fiction Weekly.  Originally from Mississippi, he lives in Lake Charles, LA with his wife and daughter.  Those Like Us, his collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin State University Press.} else {

2 comments for “Another Fake Princess

  1. Anonymous
    May 20, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    This is vivid and emotionally charged writing.

    Thank you.

  2. J.N. West
    August 26, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Really great stuff Chris ! Connected with so much of this, on many levels. Keep that pen moving on mate.

    -J.N. West

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