Friday, December 05, 2008

Pac-Man: Connecting the Dots (a Nano-Novel) Part I

Rehab I

Pac-Man was in rehab to kick the dots. He lay on his cot, restless and writhing, sweat pouring from his round, jaundiced body. "I'd sell my soul for an energizer," he gasped. The bare walls of his tiny room were indifferent to his pain.

Had the dots been his only sin, Pac-Man might have been all right. But they were a gateway drug to Oxycontin, methamphetamine and then into the craziness of ultra-espresso, Red Bull and Viagra and witch hazel.

When the chills and pain subsided, he sat up and took his guitar on his knee—he'd been allowed the instrument since he came off of suicide watch a week ago. He strummed chords distractedly until he fell into a melody. Then he sang in a low, uncertain voice:
Life is a maze
Shrouded in a haze.
You haunt all my days
with your smile and grace.

The lines of dots,
The flophouse cots,
Squandering my only shot
With you . . .

I'll find you
I'll find you if I can
I'll bribe any judge
And fight any man
I'll find you —
He couldn't utter the next words: Ms. Pac-Man.

Ms. Pac-Man: Memphis . . . Midnight

She missed him, sure, but she refused to live a country-song cliché. She followed him through more mazes than she could remember, the back of his yellow head like the sun perpetually setting, retreating, taking away its warmth. And for a time the dots were like stars to her, the energizers supernovas; rounding the endless maze corners―with the ghosts' cold embrace in close pursuit―filled her with a phantasmagorical head rush.

Then, one evening, while moving through the tunnel from one side of the screen to the other, Inkey, the timid ghost, approached her. There was poetry in his eyes; the soft caress of his ghostly, gauzy shroud. Maybe she was dizzy from the energizers or from gulping too much bonus fruit―Ms. Pac-Man succumbed without protest to Inkey's sexual overtures.

She never divulged her dalliance to Pac-Man, but feared he knew on a subliminal level. Soon after, she learned she was pregnant, knowing in her heart it was Inkey's child. Pac-Man continued his endless pursuit of dots, spending less time at home. Carrying a child, Ms. Pac-Man went off the dots, suffering her withdrawals alone. During the throes of detox, she pondered Mario's love for Pauline in Donkey Kong: they were the Romeo and Juliet of the arcade: love-bound, yes; damned to an existence of unrequited passion, absolutely. She envied them nonetheless.

One night, when Pac-Man came home battered from another dust-up with the ghosts (Inkey pursued him with a rival's determination), out of his mind on dots―eyes glowing like energizers―Ms. Pac-Man packed a bag and left him.

Here she was now, in Memphis, shacked up with Pac-Man's best friend, Slac-Man, who never had the ambition to enter the maze. He held her as they spooned on their narrow bed. Ms. Pac-Man looked across the darkened room, beyond the baby's crib, and tried to imagine the stars in the sky beyond the window.

Rehab II

There was a tap at the door. Pac-Man halted his song. Frogger hobbled into the room on slow, arthritic legs. The hand holding his cigarette quivered like a tuning fork.

"Hey man," Frogger said. "I was on my walk and heard the guitar. Don't stop, keep playing." Frogger shuffled through the corridors from the convalescent wing each evening, moving like an old football player. He took the barest amount of medication to control the pain. He learned years ago that drugs brought back the dreams in terrible Technicolor: always the traffic; the unending procession of frogicidal drivers.

As Pac-Man played, the stillness of the ward was shattered by an anguished scream from a few doors down. Frogger froze, dropping his cigarette. "What the—?"

Pac-Man set his guitar aside. A wave of fatigue made him light-headed. "That sounds like Hu."


"The humanoid from Berzerk."

Frogger's eyes widened. "He's here? I heard he didn't make it out."

"He did," Pac-Man said, rising slowly. "Barely."

Berzerk was the first video game known to have been involved in the death of a player. In January 1981, 19-year-old Jeff Dailey died of a heart attack soon after posting a score of 16,660 on Berzerk. In October of the following year, Peter Burkowski made the Berzerk top-ten list twice in fifteen minutes, just a few seconds before also dying of a heart attack at the age of 18. — Wikipedia
The bouncing face of Evil Otto swept into each dream with the force of a sorcerer's spell; the robots droning "Intruder alert! Intruder alert!"

Hu was a gaunt, lanky man—bald, pale-eyed—with hunched shoulders. He walked the halls of the institute like a ghost, passing the orderlies clad in their white shirts and trousers with black bow ties and black belts. They eyed him suspiciously, contemptuously. This often brought a wan smirk to Hu's face because the orderlies looked like surly ice cream vendors who had never made it into the field.

Once in a while, however, Hu was sure he heard one of them mutter, "The humanoid must not escape."

They were trying to rattle him. So often, they succeeded.

Rehab III

Pac-Man was the first into Hu's room; ravaged as his body was from dot-abuse, Pac-Man retained some of his old moves. The long, emaciated form beneath the thin institutional sheet lay rigid upon the sagging cot. It was clear that Hu had breathed his last. The man's gaunt face—its pale flesh hideously translucent—was pulled back in a rictus of horror.

Pac-Man staggered back until he collided with the wall, his eyes wide, giant mouth gaping. Frogger extended a shaky hand. As two ice cream parlor orderlies rushed into the room, Pac-Man breathed, "What the hell am I doing here? This isn't a hospital, it's a morgue, a mortuary, a tomb, a mausoleum, a graveyard. This is hell!"

"Hey man, it's not that bad," Frogger said. "At least they feed us regular."


Ice cream vendor orderlies with hands like construction workers grabbed Pac-Man and Frogger and forced them out of Hu's room. Shaky as Frogger was, Pac-Man was in worse shape, descending into a stony, silent depression. Frogger put him to bed. Pac-Man rolled over and faced the wall.

As Frogger limped into the corridor, the shock of Hu's demise and Pac-Man's blanked-out lethargy flattened and filed themselves away: Frogger had his own problems. Like how to break his gay lover out of maximum security solitary confinement.

That's what brought him to Pac-Man's room—to see if he still had his old connection, who slipped fruit into the maze, nourishing Pac-Man every time he went on a dot binge. Whispered word had it that Pac-Man's connection could get anything to anyone—for a price. Frogger figured if this unseen go-to-guy could get produce into a video game, he surely could help spring Frogger's soul mate escape The Pen.

Frogger II

Hobbling out of the rehab ward, Frogger took a detour away from the convalescent wing. For all of the hard breaks and bad luck he and his lover had suffered through the years, one thing had fallen in their favor: both were housed in the same institution.

It was going on 11 p.m., the time when the guards' shift changed in The Pen—the basement-level fortress of prison cells housing some of the nation's most dangerous criminals. Frogger's bones and joints alternately creaked and screamed as he slowly descended an emergency stairwell—the elevator would have been easier, of course, but it opened directly across from the guarded reception window of The Pen, allowing no one to go down there unnoticed.

Frogger's lover had been framed with the murder of eleven people a decade ago, brought about because of his political writings. Frogger dreamed of going back in time and returning with Pac-Man in his prime, and setting that ravenous yellow mouth loose on this maze, to devour the guards and barred doors like so many dots. But time-travel did not exist in the real world.

Frogger limped through a door that gave onto a maintenance corridor. There was no access into the cell block, but this vantage point allowed him to see farther into The Pen than he could from the reception window. His lover was housed around the corner in a padded cell that was brightly lit every hour of the day. In the night-time hush of the shift change, Frogger approached the bars and stage-whispered the first part of his lover's name. If his lover was awake to hear him, he'd whisper the second half of his own name:

"Q," whispered Frogger.

Several seconds passed, and then faintly, almost inaudibly:


Rehab IV

He woke with a start, chilled and disoriented, cavernously hungry, a strange twitch working around his eyes. It was the middle of the night. In the pit of his being, there was a cold sad, depression knelling through him. It took only a moment to identify its source: Hu was gone. Although they'd never been close, there was a quiet, mutual respect between Pac-Man and Hu. Both had spent their professional lives pursued by homicidal entities, and both had survived to suffer the ravages of life outside of the maze.

Hu had no one.

To think Hu had once been an innocent heating and cooling technician sent to Robotronics Test Laboratories to fix its air conditioning unit. He had no idea the robots had gone berserk and purposely disabled the climate control so that a humanoid would be sent in. Hu soon found himself surrounded by murderous robots. He managed to arm himself and sought only to get the hell out of the facility. But the place was in total lockdown. The lead programmer, Otto, had gone utterly insane and had set the robots loose. When Otto saw the humanoid holding his own against the androids, he sent a holographic image of his own head bouncing through the corridors to terrify and unman Hu. Otto didn't succeed. Hu battled the robots to the very edge of his endurance, and beyond it, and finally freed himself.

"Only to die," Pac-Man moaned, rolling onto his side, gripping his head with his hands. "Only to die . . . in this pit."

Read Part II

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