When I was a kid my dad bought us a video game system for Christmas. This was in the early eighties — the height of the Atari era.
We got a Coleco-vision.
It came with Donkey Kong. We were lucky that it came with a game because there weren’t any other games available. Literally. The Coleco-vision was discontinued and we’d already missed the closeout sales on Coleco games. I think any that were left were likely being used as a mulch over the buried ET Atari games.
A few years later we were introduced to the Nintendo. The kids who lived across the street had won a vacation to Guam. The highlight of the trip was when Rusty, the younger sibling, had stumbled across a hundred-dollar bill on the beach. Rusty had kept the bill on his person for the entire trip, sleeping with it under his pillow. Upon their return this windfall was immediately applied to the purchase of a Nintendo Entertainment System.
Until that point our only exposure to Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt was in Nick’s house up the street. He lived in one of those oppressively decorated houses that always smelled faintly of peanuts. He was allowed to have at most one friend over at a time. We would sit quietly on their velvety couch and watch Nick play. We never got a turn. It was his Nintendo and he was going to play it. If we wanted to watch, that was fine, but he felt no compulsion to share the experience. Still, we could pretend we were playing. We’d sit behind Nick and twiddle our thumbs and wish Nick would actually try to go down that green pipe. “No,” he’d reply. He had done that already and it didn’t interest him.
You can imagine how exciting it was to have a Nintendo in the neighborhood not controlled by a sociopath. It wasn’t long before we discovered that NES could breed Machiavellian machinations that pre-pubescent boys are not ready to handle.
Rusty, the younger brother, had found the money. It was an open and shut case. Mickey was happy for his brother. Rusty, though generally a dull boy, realized instinctively what sort of leverage he had suddenly acquired. It was delicious. When we’d come over to play, Rusty was a gracious host. Anyone could play if they asked permission. He would set time limits. He would arbitrarily alter the limits. We would pray the he would not alter them further.
He was at times capricious and cruel and then suddenly generous. Pre-pubescent boys have limited social sophistication but all of us quickly learned how to curry favor, flatter and conspire.
All of us except Mickey.
As the older brother, and the oldest by a hair in the two block radius that defined our territory, he was used to a certain level of discretion and control. Being suddenly bankrupted, by his little brother no less, was more than he could bear.
Mickey seethed. He plotted. He used what leverage he had, his superior size and experience, to the best of his ability. Games got rough, accidents happened. Tensions rose. After a few weeks, he didn’t even come into the room. He’d stay in his bedroom making model planes or reading.
Afternoons in our neighborhood followed seasonal patterns. We spent the summers outside on our bikes and at the pool. We’d build bike ramps at the bottom of the big hill and test our bone strength and our mother’s nerves. When the weather worsened we’d move inside. Roaming from house to house we’d encamp in each other’s basements, living rooms and bedrooms. It was our customer after school to pick a house to gather at. Since the acquisition of the Nintendo, Mickey and Rusty’s house had become the default destination.
One rainy autumn afternoon, I went to Mickey and Rusty’s house and found it empty. I hopped on my bike and rode a soggy circle around the block. At the other end of the street I saw a pile of bikes in front of Phillip’s house. Phillip had a sweet little den in his basement. He’d set up some old furniture and milk crates into a makeshift lounge behind the stairs. It was an ideal hangout with proximity to snacks in their basement pantry. There was an unspoken rule at Phillip’s house that you didn’t go upstairs. I had been up there a couple times for particularly urgent bathroom breaks. Upstairs his house was dimly lit and smelled heavily of stale cigarettes. His mother was usually asleep on the couch with a loud television tuned to an afternoon soap opera.
I walked around his house to the sliding glass door in back. Inside was every boy in the neighborhood, including a bawling Rusty. I came in and asked a boy on the edge what had happened. “Rusty lost his Nintendo to Phillip.” he told me.
“What do you mean?”
“He bet Phillip his Nintendo that he wouldn’t… you know that mean old lady with the little grey dogs? He bet that Phillip wouldn’t pee on her porch.”
I considered this. “So he did it?”
“Pfft, he rang the doorbell and waited until she came to the door.” My eyes widened. “I think he got some on her shoes.”
Rusty had made a stupid bet. At the very least he was a poor judge of character. Phillip was the kind of kid who would eat a grasshopper for a dollar. More to the point, he was the kind of kid who would eat three grasshoppers and a worm on top of it just to make sure you didn’t welsh on the bet.
After the peeing incident, I was told that Phillip casually flipped the old lady the bird, zipped up and rode down to Rusty’s house to collect his winnings. Rusty responded with the only reasonable course of action available to him. He went to Phillip’s house to tell his mother. Phillip’s mother answered the door and listened to his story while dragging dramatically on her cigarette.
At the end of his story she asked, “So, what do you want me to do about it?”
“Make him give it back to me!” Rusty said.
“Why? You made a bet, didn’t you?”
“Just think of it as a good lesson.” she concluded and closed the door.
That led to the meeting I had discovered. The boys in the neighborhood were divided. We could see the point that a bet is a bet and Phillip had more than satisfied it. However, we could also imagine what it would be like to lose such an enormous asset. Phillip was trading future game time for allies, mostly among the kids from his end of the street.
Rusty was far too agitated to make much of a case for himself. As the arguments escalated we suddenly felt a cold draft. Behind us Mickey had come into the basement. Without saying a word he walked up to Phillip and punched him square in the nose. Phillip collapsed as blood spurted down his face. Mickey reached behind the couch and picked up the Nintendo. He carefully wound up the wires on the controllers and the duck hunt pistol. He lifted the hood and checked the game inside. “Come on, Rusty. Let’s go.” He said.
We backed up and opened a path to the back door. Mickey walked out with Rusty silent behind him. Phillip’s friends poked at him and whispered. Phillip got up and pulled a roll of toilet paper down from the shelf above him. “Go home.” he said.
I stopped at Mickey and Rusty’s house and looked in the front window. They were sitting on the floor together laughing. They each held a Nintendo controller and were playing Super Mario Brothers. They looked like they were having fun. I didn’t want to interrupt them, so I went home.