Friday, December 05, 2008

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

Part I

Ms. Pac-Man II

She rose from the bed and crossed the darkened room. Slac-Man lay slumped across the bed, making loud, slobbering sounds in his sleep. Ms. Pac-Man went to the crib in the corner and looked at Baby Pac-Man with a mixture of pride, love and pain. The entire nine months she carried her baby, she dreaded giving birth to a Gac-Man—half ghost, half pac-sapien, shunned by both communities.

Baby Pac-Man dreamed in the sleep of the innocent. If Ms. Pac-Man had her way—and no one was going to keep her from having her way—Baby Pac-Man would never set foot in a maze, and neither would a dot nor an energizer ever pass his lips.

The telephone rang, shattering the stillness. Ms. Pac-Man got it on the third ring.

"Hello?" she said. There was only breathing on the other end. "Hello?"

Click. Dial tone. The hang-up calls had been coming for months. She knew they were coming from Pac-Man.

Behind her, Slac-Man snored like a loose plunger working a narrow drain. Ms. Pac-Man bristled.

Rehab V

After years of self-abuse, Pac-Man was no longer the robust morning sun he'd once been. Running the maze had kept him thin, but the ravages of the dots and energizers had left him grizzled, lined and wheezing.

The worst of the day's withdrawal symptoms were behind him, so he rose from his bed and ventured into the corridor. He was unsure how long he'd slept, but he felt rested and somewhat refreshed. The ward was dark and quiet. Pac-Man couldn't count the years he'd spent in this institution since his involuntary committal, but he was certain of one thing: he had to get out.

He crept down to the common room where an orderly watched Sports Round-Up on TV. Pac-Man delivered a karate chop to the side of the man's neck, rendering him unconscious. He rifled the orderly's pockets and extracted a giant ring filled with keys—

"Hey!" a voice shouted. "What're you doing?" Two orderlies came running.

Instinct kicked in and Pac-Man was on the move. The orderlies rushed into the common room, trying to grab the little, yellow patient, but Pac-Man still had a few moves left in him. He feinted right and dodged left, threw head-fakes, doubled-back between the coffee table and television stand, and cut a hard right that sent the orderlies crashing into one another.

He scooted around the chair in which the unconscious orderly sat and was out the door and down hall. The key ring in his hand was the first prize he'd scooped in years.

Sweat streamed down his face, and his heart pounded heavily in his chest, but Pac-Man hadn't felt so alive since his first day in the maze.

On the Road

It was still there—Pac-Man couldn't believe it. Back in the bad old days, he'd left a duffel bag in a bus station locker containing a wad of money and a disguise. One of the last things he remembered was stiffing his connection. There was no guessing how much money Pac-Man owed him, but he was in deep enough trouble to have a getaway plan. Hence the locker.

Pac-Man ducked into a rest room and put on the Hawaiian shirt and straw hat he found in the duffel. He pocketed the money. When he approached a ticket window in the station, he realized he was about to make his first decision since seeking sobriety—escaping the institute had been an unplanned whim. It was now time to get his shit together.

Going by the name "Cortes," Pac-Man worked as a farm-hand in Montana. In California, he worked in a car wash. He dealt cards for three months in Reno. Worked in the oil fields of Texas. He dove for sponges and coral in Florida. He caddied semi-pro golf on Hilton Head, South Carolina. Every month or so he sent a postcard to Frogger. Nights when he fought against drinking himself to sleep, Pac-Man sorely regretted not saying a proper goodbye to his friend. Visions of Hu's mortified corpse haunted his dreams.

Wherever he went, Pac-Man kept a journal and a tattered copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in his back pocket. In some of his tougher jobs, he was razzed for being a reader. Mostly, though, he kept to himself. Somewhere in this great country was the woman he had once loved—and who had loved him—a child who had never seen his face.

He intended to find them.


It was a muggy, overcast evening in Atlanta. Pac-Man stood at his post as doorman in front a five-star hotel when a modded-out car shaped like a giant carp pulled to the curb. Passersby stopped and pointed and laughed. Pac-Man was the only one not smiling. He knew this Carp-car. It was the last thing in the world he wanted to see.

A slender, pale man with a Charlie Chaplin mustachio—dressed in a silver bodysuit—stepped out of the car. "You knew we'd find you," he said to Pac-Man. "Run, and we'll find you again—and we may not approach you in such civil manner next time."

Pac-Man got into the car. If he lived, he knew that he was through with this hotel, and probably with Atlanta, altogether. The silver-suited man got into the passenger seat up front. The car pulled into traffic.

In the plush, purple expanse of the Carp-car's backseat sat infomercial guru Conrad Glibb who had pioneered the belt-buckle-cheese-grater, the beer-cooler-trampoline and the patented Glibb "Comedian's Companion" Rubber fish—hence the outlandish automobile. Glibb was also Pac-Man's Connection. He looked at his former client and smiled. "You've lost weight," he said. "And you've aged fifty years."

"Dots and vodka aren't known for sustaining one's youthful glow," Pac-Man said.

Glibb laughed. "But they haven't robbed you of witty ripostes! Bon mot!"

Pac-Man sighed. "Look, I fucked up. I left owing you, and I know it doesn't work that way."

"Didn't Oscar Wilde say once, ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel no one else has a right to blame us'?" Glibb waved the comment away. "Since you've cut to the dénouement, how do you plan to settle your debt?"

Pac-Man said nothing. Glibb filled the silence: "Maybe I can help, then. I have clients who have certain tastes . . . appetites, let's say. They would pay almost anything to spend, say, some quality time with a ghost." He leered at Pac-Man. "Bring me a ghost and I'll call us even."

"But I—" Pac-Man began, but Glibb cut him off.

"I can't imagine you have fond feelings for someone like Inkey, to name one. If I remember correctly, he cuckolded you." Seeing Pac-Man's shocked, drained expression, Glibb laughed, surprised. "They always say the cuckold is the last to know! I guess not all clichés are . . . clichés." His smile disappeared. "Bring me a ghost. I don't care which one. It could be the ghost of Harry Houdini for all I care. Bring me a ghost or maybe I'll take up your debt with your long lost love."

Ms. Pac-Man & Love's Travel Stop

She had waitressed for eight years at Love's Travel Stop, just off of Highway 240. Slac-Man was still trying to get his music career together. "This is where Elvis lived and died," he said whenever Ms. Pac-Man asked if he was looking for work. "Memphis is where I've gotta make my break." His last paying gig was three months ago in a women's hair salon. Payment was two free stylings and a manicure. Ms. Pac-Man got in for one, but Slac-Man slipped in for the others, saying his pompadour was his signature and that his hands were his true instruments.

There was a lull after the breakfast rush. As Ms. Pac-Man wiped tables, Sid, the assistant manager, called to her. "Telephone call!" he said brusquely. "Make it quick, I'm not running a call center!"

Ms. Pac-Man went around the counter to the telephone that sat beside the old, nicotine-stained cash register. "Hello?" There was only breathing on the other end. "Hello?" she said again.

Click. Dial tone. She stood there, looking at the receiver.

"What's with you?" Sid sneered. "You look like you never seen a phone before." He paused, watching her. Then he clapped his hands. "Come on! The tables ain't gonna wipe 'emselves!"

Frogger III

Seated with his back to the muted television in the common room, Frogger spent the dinner hour smoking butts he found in the ashtray—his ration of cigarettes had been taken away for three days because he'd been caught whispering through the bars of The Pen one night. He read the latest postcard from Pac-Man, smiling, even though the thought of travel conjured memories of roads, and the last thing in this life Frogger wanted to think about was automobile traffic.

A telephone call came to the institute the other day from a producer for VH1's Where Are They Now? They were putting together a video game special and tracking down 80s icons. Among other things, the producer wanted to delve into Pac-Man's controversial 1999 statement that "Video games with guns aren't video games—they're paramilitary training." The producer said he'd let Frogger know if they found Pac-Man.

As the late afternoon sunshine streamed into the common room, Frogger couldn't remember a time when he'd felt more alone. Pac-Man was gone. Hu was dead (although he had never known the Berzerk humanoid personally, he still experienced a pang losing a brother-in-arms). And his tenuous link to Q*Bert had been severed. Frogger wondered if it wasn't time to begin saving up and hiding his meds, and making that final crossing to the place where there was no traffic.

Mix Tape

Pac-Man walked through a warm, suburban spring evening with his Sony Walkman listening to an old mixed tape he'd made for Ms. Pac-Man sometime in the late 1980s. She'd left it behind when she walked out of his life. The Pretenders played "Back On the Chain Gang." The song sketched in his mind the days he spent with Ms. Pac-Man, playing his guitar for her, seeing her after a night in the maze, going to dot raves and making love with her behind the stadium.

He looked at the homes in this neighborhood, which seemed to exist in another world, different and separate from the one Pac-Man knew, in which tyrants and madmen rode around in Carp-shaped cars demanding the hideously impossible from him.

He looked at the dusk-wounded sky and muttered, "The world is too much with us."

Read Part III

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