These are the things Walt will eat:
Mondays: Box macaroni and cheese, the macaroni shaped like Pac-Man and ghosts.
Tuesdays: Personal-size frozen pizza. Mel cuts a thin wedge from the pizza and arranges the pepperoni so that it looks like an eye.
Wednesdays: Frozen burritos. Mel cuts a circle out of a slice of orange cheese, cuts a wedge and an eye into the circle, and lays it on the pale skin of the burrito when it is hot from the microwave.
Thursdays: Canned Pac-Man pasta in spaghetti sauce.
Fridays: Round fish patties with a wedge cut out for the mouth and a dollop of ketchup for the eye.
In the mornings, if they get up early enough, Walt pours himself a bowl of cereal shaped like Pac-Man. Sprinkled in among the cereal bits are multicolored marshmallows shaped like ghosts. Walt takes his breakfast to the couch and sits, wrapped in a blanket, watching reruns of Popeye the Sailor and Tom and Jerry until Mel gets out of the shower. On mornings when they don’t get up early enough, Walt eats dry Pac-Man cereal from a plastic bag in the car on the way to school.
Walt’s second grade teacher is Mrs. Phillips. Mrs. Phillips has a small, round rear end. She has permed jet black hair and blue eyes. She wears stirrup pants with oversized sweaters and plastic bangles. Mel asks Walt a lot of questions about Mrs. Phillips, but Walt is not interested in Mrs. Phillips. Mel is the one interested in Mrs. Phillips.
Mel drops his son off at the before-school program at 7:45. At the before-school program, the children are supposed to finish their homework and play dodge ball. Walt always has his homework finished, but he does not play dodge ball. Walt and his friends have invented a game which involves chasing each other around the gym and screaming at the tops of their lungs until the teacher on duty tells them to shut up. They call this game Pac-Man. It is indistinguishable from tag as far as Mel can tell. Mel is familiar with the before-school activities because he has a tendency to linger at the door of the gym trying to get a glimpse of Mrs. Phillips’s rear end.
A couple weeks ago, one of the other fathers nudged Mel in the ribs at the door of the gym and said, too loud, “Like ’em with a little junk in the trunk?”
Mel and the father laughed, their voices rocketing over the gym. Mel saw Mrs. Phillips glaring in their direction and marching toward another parent, who happens to serve on the school board.
Mel and the father left quickly.
But Mel continues to ogle Mrs. Phillips whenever she is on duty in the mornings. He has been late to work a couple of times because of this.
Not that anyone at work notices. Between the antics of Mack and Dave, PST Technology is not a place where you get noticed. Unless you are the victim of a “Mack attack.” A Mack attack is when Mack comes around on a rampage and fires the whole department. So far, Mel has avoided getting sacked during a Mack attack. He is a good technician, and he knows how to keep his head down.
Mel believes in keeping his head down. This is not advice that he received from the Pac-Man Daily Message. Pac-Man daily messages are usually “you already know how to do your best!” and “let bad situations bring out the best in you!” and “you are special! Celebrate how you stand out!”
Mel knows the Pac-Man daily messages by heart because, every night before bed, Walt is allowed to call the 800 number for the Pac-Man Daily Message on his Teddy Ruxpin speaker phone. Mel doesn’t know who sponsors the Pac-Man Daily Message. He read about it in the newspaper last year and thought it would help Walt fall asleep.
The Pac-Man Daily Message doesn’t play instantly. First, the Pac-Man theme song plays, scratchy because it has been played eight million times already. Mel can tell which tape they’re using by the level of scratchiness. Then, a voice (presumably Pac-Man’s) says, “Hey kids, stay tuned for our daily message, right after these words from our sponsors!” This is followed by advertisements of a curiously inappropriate nature, things like insurance or the local vo-tech. Sometimes it’s an advertisement for a drug treatment center or an event at the Expo Center.
Finally, Pac-Man comes back on and says things like “yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present!” After the message, Pac-Man says, “Don’t forget to call in for tomorrow’s daily message from Pac-Man!”
Theme song, and click.
Mel can’t tell if Walt remembers the messages or gets anything out of them. He won’t go to bed without calling in, though. He listens, with his Pac-Man plush pillow clutched to his Pac-Man pajamas. When the message line hangs up, Walt lies down and lets Mel tuck him in under his Pac-Man sheets. When Mel turns off the lamp, a dim yellow light from a Pac-Man shaped night light glows next to the door. Throughout the night, the room fills with the greenish smell of Walt’s sleep farts.
Walt’s favorite song on the radio is not “Pac-Man Fever.”
Walt’s favorite song on the radio is “Cocaine.”
On a particular Thursday morning in February, “Cocaine” is playing on the car radio. A few snowflakes shine in the headlights of the Chevette. Mel is driving Walt to the before-school program. Walt states that the snowflakes are dots and that the car is Pac-Man eating them. Walt is eating dry Pac-Man cereal from a plastic bag.
“What is Mrs. Phillips reading aloud to you today?”
The snow is a little heavier by the time Mel drops off Walt, and it is even heavier when he gets to work.
Mel drives around to the west parking lot where all the other employees are parked. His car is still sticky after he absent-mindedly parked in the wrong lot a few days before. A residue sticks to cars parked in the wrong lot because PST Technology is trying to remediate ground contamination caused by its manufacturing processes, which involves exposing the soil to fans which dissipate the toxins into the air. Something about the process involves a sticky substance that attaches to cars parked down-wind. Mel was absent-minded the other day because he was thinking about the Pac-Man Daily Message from the night before.
Walt had called the Pac-Man 800 number as usual, at 8:00 p.m. The usual advertisements—one for a local doctor’s office, one for a car dealership. Then Pac-Man came on. Mel was betting in his head that the Pac-Man message would be “no one is perfect. That’s why pencils have erasers!”
But that night, Pac-Man said, “Don’t show management what you’re doing. They’ll try to change it. Only show them finished projects, because then they can’t mess it up.”
Walt appeared to take this message in stride, but Mel thought about that message quite a while. He was still thinking about it when he parked the car the next day, hence the Chevette is sticky.
On the way to his work area, Mel encounters a crowd outside of Dave’s door.
“What’s going on?” Mel asks his workstation partner, Larry.
“Dave punched a hole in the wall.”
“Janitors locked him out.”
“They lock him out all the time. Why’s he mad now?”
“I don’t think he’s mad. I think he’s just tired of climbing over the partitions.”
It is possible, by moving a panel from the drop ceiling, for one to climb into the rafters and make one’s way into the other offices. This is something Dave does regularly. Dave is a kid genius and he gets away with stuff like that because even though management doesn’t like him, they can’t manufacture personal computers without him. Management tries to control Dave by locking him out of offices. Dave is not a type of person who can be controlled that way.
Mel would never try something like breaking into offices. Mel is not a kid genius, and he tries to avoid Mack attacks. Mel has a second-grade Pac-Man fiend to feed.
Mel and Larry watch Dave stick his non-smashed hand through the hole in the wall and open the door to his office from the inside. A couple of people cheer and applaud. Mel and Larry walk down to their workstation in the production area. They sit down to a stack of circuit boards.
“Looks like we’re in for a pretty good storm,” says Larry.
“It was starting to snow when I got here.”
Mel gets to work on his circuit boards and starts thinking about Wednesday’s Pac-Man message.
Wednesday’s Pac-Man message said, “Four hundred thousand people died building the Great Wall of China.”
Walt as usual seemed unaffected by that message, but Mel hasn’t been able to let go of it. How the 400,000 people must have wakened in the morning and eaten their bowls of whatever people in medieval China ate for breakfast. How they, maybe, dropped their kids off at school and went on to their workstations at the wall. How some boy genius architect probably broke into the foreman’s quarters every day to get hold of the measuring tape. How the 400,000 only wanted one thing, and that was to lie low and get paid at the end of the day. But then, whammo. They got clobbered by a boulder or fell off a cliff, or maybe the foreman decided to have the whole department beheaded. And that was it.
At 2:50 p.m. Mel takes his afternoon coffee break. He goes to the cafeteria, which smells of somebody’s burnt lunch. The coffee is still warm but it has developed a skin. The nondairy creamer clods up as soon as it hits the liquid.
Mel does not stay in the cafeteria. He takes his Styrofoam cup into the hallway and makes his way through the bowels of PST Technology. The building is a cubic monolith, plopped into the landscape like a poisonous toad. There are a few windows. Mel heads toward his favorite window, which is in a stairwell, and looks out onto some trees. Mel’s twice-daily coffee breaks in the stairwell, one at 10:20 a.m. and the other at 2:50 p.m., are the only times that he sees daylight during winter.
This afternoon, there is no daylight. When Mel looks out of the stairwell window, sipping at his lumpy coffee, he sees a wall of white. Occasionally, the wind blows the white aside and he can see to where the Chevette is up to its bumpers in snow.
Last night’s Pac-Man message was “the meaning of life is that it ends.”
Mel’s stomach gives him a jab. Probably anxiety and old coffee. Maybe cancer.
No one answers the school’s telephone number. When Mel slams down the receiver the third time, Dave says, “Whoa.” Dave is nursing his wall-punching hand, which is now bandaged up. He lets Mel borrow his office phone for school calls because the only other option is the payphone in the cafeteria.
Mel’s stomach makes him grimace. Dave believes the grimace is for him and grins back. Mel picks up the phone again.
The tinny shimmer of the Pac-Man theme song seeps out of the receiver and Dave hears it. He waggles his eyebrows at Mel.
Pac-Man says, “Hey kids, stay tuned for our daily message, right after these words from our sponsors!” Mel listens to an advertisement for a new cancer treatment center, and an advertisement for an antidepressant. Then Pac-Man says, “Every victory eventually turns into a defeat.”
Mel puts the receiver in the cradle. He is not seeing the phone. He is seeing the Chevette up to the bumpers in snow.
Dave has gone back to whatever he was soldering into the innards of a joystick.
Mel hunts through his wallet and finds a telephone number. Dials it.
The telephone number is not a number that Mel should have. A couple months ago, after a parent-teacher conference during which Mrs. Phillips told Mel that Walt is an exceptionally bright boy and that Mel should occasionally try to feed him a vegetable, and during which Mel had wondered what Mrs. Phillips’s underwear looked like, Mel had not gone directly back to the gym where Walt was playing Pac-Man with his friends. Instead, Mel wandered over to the school office. The office was open and all the lights were on, but no one was at the reception area.
There was a bulletin board behind the reception desk, and on that bulletin board there was a mimeographed directory, divided and organized by grade. Each faculty member’s name, birthdate, address, and telephone number was listed. Mel pulled a ballpoint pen out of his pocket and wrote Mrs. Phillips’s number on the back of his hand.
As Mel finished writing, the secretary walked back in, wiping her hands on her skirt. “May I help you.” It was not a question.
Mel clicked off the ball point pen and dropped it on the reception desk. “Just borrowing your pen,” he said.
When Mrs. Phillips answers her telephone, Mel freezes up. She says, “Hello? Hello?” He can tell she was getting ready to pour herself a glass of wine and slip into a frothy bathtub. Maybe she had to get out of a frothy bathtub to answer the phone. Mel thinks about her rear end having just emerged from a frothy bathtub.
He clears his voice. “Sorry about that,” he says. He tries to sound like an important man who has been giving orders to subordinates. “Mrs. Phillips? This is Walt’s father.”
“I can’t get hold of anyone at the school.”
He wants her to coo with concern.
She does not coo. Instead, she says, like a stewardess indicating the exits, “The school closed at 10:30 due to the weather. They called all of the parents.” Her tone implies that if he had been where he was supposed to be, he would have gotten the call.
“I did not get a call,” says Mel. “What arrangements were made for my son?”
“We do ask that parents keep their contact information updated for this kind of emergency,” she says. Clearly it is his fault that Walt is out in the snow, probably half dead in a drift.
“I do ask that my son not be thrown out into a snowstorm without anyone notifying me,” says Mel.
In the background, Mel hears the piano plinks of The Young and the Restless theme song. They come across the telephone receiver like a toy xylophone.
“How did you even get this number?”
“Your secretary gave it to me.”
“I didn’t authorize that information to be released.”
“Well, sweetheart, I didn’t authorize you to neglect your duty in loco parentis to my child, so we’re about even.”
Mel hangs up before she can answer.
When he gets done swearing, Mel says, “I gotta go find Walt.”
“They’re gonna can your ass if you leave, man.” Dave is a good guy, a little obnoxious because he is a kid genius, but a good guy. “Want me to tell them you got sick?”
“Tell them,” says Mel, “That four hundred thousand people died building the Great Wall of China.”
Walt is playing Pac-Man on the Atari. When Mel scoops him up into a bear hug, Pac-Man utters a quavering howl and perishes. Walt squirms.
“How did you get home?”
“Wendy’s Mom,” says Walt. He does not say, Duh, how do I always get home when you can’t pick me up, but Mel can hear it.
Walt does say, “Dad, you’re all wet.” He wriggles free from Mel’s arms and starts his game back up.
It is true. Mel is all wet. There are globs of ice dropping off his pant cuffs and melting on the carpet. The Chevette is in a ditch half a mile from the apartment, and it will stay there until he can dig it out.
Mel takes a hot shower. He mops up the ice and does some dishes. He makes popcorn and sits down next to Walt on the couch. Walt is one with Pac-Man. He is Zen in pixels. The ghosts, the strawberries, the oranges, they whirl around him as a hurricane around its eye.
That evening, when they dial the Pac-Man Daily Message, a mechanical voice states, “We’re sorry, but that number is no longer in service.” They dial it three times to make sure.
Sarah E. Ruhlen’s fiction and poetry have appeared in DIAGRAM, Waccamaw, Guesthouse, The Boiler, Slipstream, and RHINO, and she has received multiple Pushcart nominations. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Hobart and was anthologized in Essay Daily’s What Happened on June 21st, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.