The blessing and the curse of pinball is that it can never truly be mastered. It doesn’t matter that you bleed quarter after quarter into the machine, that you’re a hunchbacked penitent at a flashing altar. It doesn’t matter that you’re most alive in the remotest corner of the darkest bar, in suburban bowling alleys, in someone’s basement. It doesn’t matter that your hands throb and your spine aches. None of it matters. As good as you are, the element of chance – that moody combination of gravity and magnets – can kick in at any time. And when it does, when the silver ball heads straight down the drain, no one can stop it. No one, that is, but Bowen Kerins, the pinball pantheon’s undisputed god of the Death Save.
He’s not exactly a household name, but Kerins might just be the last hope of a dying pastime. He’s pinball’s Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Pete Sampras rolled into one 30-year-old mathematician. On websites devoted to the silver ball in all of its waning glory, he is lauded as a god for his lightening-like flipper play and impossible “bang backs” – the skills that separate serious practitioners from barroom amateurs.
I’m with Kerins in the basement of his Salem, MA home, watching him at the helm of a game called the Simpsons Pinball Party. Planting his feet and leaning into the machine, he wraps a blunt finger around the plunger, pulls back, and sighs into the long release. The ball takes off, barrels into the upper ellipse, hits the vortex spiral, crashes into a row of spastic bumpers. Homer Simpson moans his signature “Doh!” each time Kerins nails the big yellow Homer head rising up from the center of the playfield like a jack-in-the-box clown.
Plunk. Kerins catches the silver ball on one flipper, cradling it there while he lines up his shot. “You learn which targets are safe, the low-risk shots, and go for those.” Bing. “Doh!” He hits, collecting the extra ball. “You learn how to use as little force as possible to accomplish what you want to accomplish.” Whoosh. “Doh!” He sends the ball careening up a ramp. “Aiming is always easier if the ball isn’t moving.” Beep. “Doh!” Muliball. The spring-loaded plunger sends three new orbs into play. They ricochet off one another in a kind of a chaos ballet, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph. “Time to concentrate,” Kerins says, clenched jaw signaling resolve as cartoon theme music swells. Pinball 101 will have to wait. “Doh! Doh! Doh!”
By day Kerins is very much the adult, with a job writing math textbooks, a wife, Nancy, and a spoiled-rotten mutt. But this subterranean room might have been extracted from the architectural fantasy life of a pre-teen boy: against one wall, trophies, a dozen of them – wood-and-metal monuments to “wasted” quarters paid off in full. Tiny gilded men squat over tiny gilded pinball machines, with Kerins’ name engraved above dreamscape venues: Pinbrawl 2003, Pinburgh 2001, World Pinball Championships 2005. The real spoils of war are on the other side of the room: seven pinball machines, all set on free-play, blinking and bleeping seductively. No more loose change extracted from denim pockets. This is Kerins’ playground, his practice field, a place to perfect tricky moves before unveiling them for the masses.
Back up nearly two decades to a time before the trophies and the prize money and the glory. Flash back to a cerebral boy, an empty stretch of Sunday afternoons, and a Miami Beach arcade. Listen to his voice go all soft and dreamy: “I don’t even remember the name of the machine that I played, but I remember coming back to it again and again. I remember the pleasure, the satisfaction of knowing that if I played well, I’d win a free game.”
I recognize Kerins’ tone from the other players I’ve talked to over the years. This is the crux of the game’s allure: its persistent hold on nostalgia-firing synapses; the way the impact of ball against flipper imprints itself on retina and memory.
The Kerins family moved to Newport, and a young Bowen continued playing pinball on trips to bars with his father – outings that weren’t exactly sanctioned by Melissa Kerins, now divorced from her husband. “Let’s just say that’s not my idea of a weekend activity with your 8-year-old son,” she says, laughter robbing the words of some of their sting.
But David Kerins says these pub crawls were neither as frequent nor as dissolute as Melissa makes them out to be. He does recall Bowen drawing a crowd in the barroom as he hit the same ramp shot over and over again. “It was that math mind of his; he had this uncanny ability to understand how to rack up points quickly.”
The wizard matured and started going to the Newport arcade on his own. A father’s voice rings with pride as he remembers the day his son came home with two bulging pocketfuls of change – more money than he’d left the house with. “He’d won a bunch of free games and sold them to other kids.”
As a freshman at Stanford in the early ‘90s, Kerins discovered that a rabid subculture existed around what, for him, had always been a fairly solitary pleasure. Trolling the incipient world of Internet newsgroups, he found one entitled rec.arts.pinball. He posted some of his high scores and was invited out to play in San Francisco. Turned out he was good, and not just by the standards of Newport’s arcade dwellers.
Kerins’ eyes shine behind round glasses at this memory of discovered kinship. “I learned a lot just watching people play,” he says. And suddenly, in spite of a receding hairline and the slightest hint of a paunch, he looks very much the excited boy.
The pinheads are not merely like-minded hobbyists. They are united by a mission to push back the “evolve or die” forces of technological Darwinism, which have been threatening pinball since Atari reeled in its first joystick junky.
In 2000, Wired magazine eulogized the game with this proclamation: “Toll the bell: Pinball, a cultural technology that has swallowed our coins since the Great Depression, is dead” – a response to the news that “the Microsoft of pinball,” the Chicago-based WMS Industries, had traded in its flippers for a share in the far more profitable video poker and slot machine market. Other publications were quick to join the pile-on. Article after article took a kind of ghoulish pleasure in driving a verbal stake through pinball’s robot heart.
It seemed the new generation of gamers had banished pinball as too old, too difficult, and too boring – a creaky analogue dinosaur lumbering through the digital age.
“A lot of kids feel pinball is nowhere near as stimulating as Doom, Quake or a lot of games they are playing these days,” says Robert Nideffer, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, who studies computer gaming.
That little bit of randomness – the luck factor – that makes the game such a thing of beauty to its proponents may well be the key to its downfall.
“Youngsters like to master a game and move on. They don't like games like pinball that are impossible to defeat.”
Nideffer’s isn’t the only theory to explain the “quarter drop,” as the industry’s slump is termed. Blame the short attention spans of today’s youth. Blame the Xbox. Blame the manufacturers themselves for making the games too costly to fix. Whatever the reason, pinball is holding on by a thread, with only one company, Stern Pinball, producing new machines.
Kerins has learned to shrug off the “reports of doom and gloom,” secure in the knowledge that the game has survived before, and will continue to survive as long as Stern turns a profit. Still, he says he does “feel a responsibility to introduce new people to pinball.” While at Stanford, he founded the Bay Area Pinball Association (BAPA), a friendly competitive league that’s still going strong. An attempt to organize a similar league in Boston was less successful – not due to a lack of player interest, but because there simply aren’t any venues left to play in. He’s not bitter, though, which puts him in the minority among pinball players.
Meet the Pinheads
The pinball diehards are of sick of hearing that they are a bunch of overweight obsessives and unwashed geeks who need to get a life. They are tired of reading that the game they love is down to its last quarter, a lost cause of nostalgia hunters.
Pinball has a self-image problem. This became abundantly clear to me when I covered my first tournament in 2003. The favorite that year was a young upstart named Keith Elwin. He was a talented shot-maker but a bit of a loudmouth, and whenever I was around, he made a big show of rolling up his sleeves and flexing unremarkable biceps. “Promise me you won’t call us fat,” he demanded again and again.
After imploding spectacularly in the first round – he blamed the glare from the fluorescent lights – Elwin drowned his sorrows at the hotel bar and became voluble on the subject of pinball’s journalistic oeuvre. He and the other pinheads were still smarting from a blow to their collective egos dealt by no less a purveyor of hipster wisdom than Spin Magazine in 1995. Short but zinger-filled, the article in question treated the World Championships as a grand joke. The players themselves came off as fanatical at best, lunatic at worst – socially deranged athlete wannabes, who “look like they were raised in cellars and force-fed Ho-Ho’s.”
Gleefully mean-spirited, yes, but as a purely superficial description of a subculture, not entirely inaccurate. Your average pinhead is a slightly older incarnation of a joystick junky. Most are, like Elwin, computer programmers or, like Kerins and the number-three-ranked Neil Shatz, mathematicians. These are guys with skills honed in arcades rather than on playing fields. And if the game is an intensely physical experience, it is a physicality of the nudge rather than, say, the tackle.
But the reason Spin’s take on the game is ultimately so unfair is that the pinball community has never made claims of athletic prowess. When ESPN devoted a full three-minute segment to the Championships back in 1994, the pinheads themselves laughed the loudest. They saw they irony: their game had been embraced by the jocks – the grown-up schoolyard bullies who had driven them out of the sunlight and into their arcades, their computer consoles, their subterranean haunts.
In fact, Kerins remembers being attracted to pinball precisely because it offered a kind of equity unheard of in any gymnasium: “I liked that a kid didn’t have any advantage or disadvantage compared to an adult. Size was never an issue.”
Pinball historian Roger Sharpe is poetic on the subject of the game’s categorical difference from sport. Casual players, he says, don’t know any better. They approach the machine with an air of competitive aggression, riding the flippers like gunslingers and flipping frantically until the ball is sucked inexorably downwards. But the great ones, the wizards, merge with the machine.
Aggression gives way to a gentle caress, to a dance with the mechanical bride. “I used to believe that pinball was the ultimate test of man versus machine," Sharpe says. "But over the years, I have come to the realization that it’s actually man with machine.”
What is pinball exactly? What is this not-quite-a-sport-but-more-than-a-game that tugs on our synapses, touching us at our nostalgic core? Like many of America’s greatest inventions, pinball defies easy categorization. It is the stepfather of Pacman, the cousin of the Japanese pachinko machine, and an uncle to foosball. Depending on whom you ask, it is a cartoon cosmos under glass, a time waster, a loose-change sucker, or a microcosm of the human condition.
Pinball’s creation myth is hotly debated, but in his 1977 book Pinball!, Sharpe argues convincingly that the first real ancestor of today's game was a late-Victorian twist on billiards, which involved smacking balls into holes of different values, called Improvements in Bagatelles. The game was devoid of flippers, but it did have a strikingly pinball-like feature: a spring-loaded plunger that launched the ball into play. In the 1930s, coin-op manufacturers added an inclined plane, an improved plunger that allowed for more player control, and hedges of brass pins surrounding the scoring holes. At a penny or nickel a shot, Baffle Ball and Bally Hoo became monster hits, offering cheap thrills for the Depression-era masses. But players of this flipperless game could not bear to stand idly by, abandoning their “steelie” – the precursor to today’s ball Bering – to the often unkind forces of gravity and chance. They’d bump and shake the table – a process historian Russ Jensen calls “grunching.” To put a damper on this, Stanford engineering grad Harry Williams, who would later found the WMS pinball empire, came up with the tilt mechanism in 1932. When the tilt was tripped, the machine would die in the midst of battle, or at least hibernate, frustrating and teasing the player. Pinball’s most famous feature, the flipper, first appeared on 1947's Humpty Dumpty machine. According to Sharpe, “The flipper literally became an extension of your fingertips. It was like you could reach under the glass and influence the ball.”
If Kerins is the new face of pinball, its rising star, Sharpe is the game’s past, its mythic hero, and the protagonist of the most oft-repeated pinball story of all time. In the 1970s, pinball was illegal in New York City. The ban was a bizarre holdover from the 1940s, when anti-gaming zealots targeted the game as an immoral gambling device. Then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called the industry “a racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality,” and famously appeared on the cover of newspapers smashing pinball machines with a sledgehammer.
Following the monster success of the movie version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, about a deaf, dumb, and blind “pinball wizard,” the game was more popular than ever, and the real-life wizard Sharpe figured the time was right to challenge New York’s ban. In April of 1976, he walked into a courtroom, machine in tow, and announced that pinball had evolved into a game of skill, not chance as its detractors had alleged. To prove his point, he played. In a move he compares to Babe Ruth famously “calling” his homerun during the 1932 World Series, Sharpe pointed to a lane at the top of the playfield and announced, “I’m going to pull the plunger back and the ball will go there.” It did, proving his skill-over-luck proclamation. The ban on pinball was promptly lifted. Today’s machines are slicker than they were in Sharpe’s heyday, with pop culture themes designed to win over young fans. They sing, laugh, and yell. Some, like the earthquake-themed Earthshaker, even tremble and dance. The popular Twilight Zone, with its Rod Steiger-voiced narration and obfuscating mirrors, invites players to solve a mystery. The industry’s all-time best-seller, Addams Family, is funny and surprising, with its disembodied hand reaching out to snatch the ball off of the playfield.
The best players, Kerins says, have to be “strong, logical thinkers,” able to understand Byzantine rule sets that resemble movie plots: slay the dragon, rescue the princess, attack the castle, lock the ball in the dungeon. “You have to have a good plan, but if something happens in the middle, you also have to be able to revise it quickly.”
The Wizard’s Magic
The 2005 World Pinball Championships is held in a tacky hotel conference room in suburban Pennsylvania. The crowd watching Kerins and number-four-ranked Lyman Sheats duel on side-by-side Monster Bash machines know they’re in the presence of greatness. They pull up folding chairs and whisper hastily cancelled dinner dates into cell phones. It’s a true dogfight, expected to last hours.
“Lyman’s gonna take it. That boy is hungry for a title.” Elwin, the center of attention despite yet another early-round elimination, stage-whispers commentary to anyone who will listen.
Others aren’t so sure. “Bowen is a chess master who is thinking 12 or 13 moves ahead,” says Neil Shatz, who has come in second to Kerins’ first in countless tournaments. “Watching him play is like watching someone who has no doubts about what to do with each contact of the ball on the flippers. There is no hesitation or ambiguity.”
Each man plays in his signature style. Kerins faces the machine with a Zen-like calm, following his plan, controlling the chaos. Sheats squats like a gymnast who’s stuck the landing. He seems a bit wild, grinning goofily after a particularly good shot.
In the blink of an eye, the tournament nearly ends. Kerins has been hitting his ramp shots, collecting his bonuses, making it look easy. But then, for no good reason, the ball heads, in pinball parlance, SDTM – straight down the middle. For 99 out of a hundred players, that would be game, set and match. Not for Kerins. With an impressive show of strength, he slides 350 pounds of machine quickly and smoothly to the left, so that the ball hits the right flipper and bounces back into play. There is a gasp from the audience, then a smattering of applause.
A minute or so later, the same ball is headed down the right lane – again, the inevitable ball-ender for most players. Almost casually, Kerins delivers a sharp hip-check to the machine. Again, the silver ball heads back into play. Again, no tilt.
And what, you might well ask, was that?
“That was one gutsy knockback, also known as a death save. A little bit harder and he would’ve tilted for sure.” Elwin looks impressed in spite of himself.
In the end, the tournament comes down to a simple misflip on Sheats’ part. He’s in multiball mode, with three balls cradled on his right flipper. A gentle nudge is meant to pass one of those balls to the left, but he botches it and two balls drain in rapid succession. In desperation, he tries for a risky center shot that both players have avoided all game; the payoff in points is high, but so is the probability of a drain. He misses and sees his ball heading for the left lane. An over-zealous hip-check results in a tilt. Game over. Final time: one hour, 22 minutes.
There’s some moaning about the fluorescent lights –in playful mockery of Elwin – a bit of whining about the disruptive crowd noise, but in the end, Sheats is gracious in defeat. He links arms with Kerins and the two bow to whistles and applause. Then, hands aching, stomachs growling, eyes blurry, and ears deafened, the pinheads shuffle out of the blinking-and-bleeping conference room and into the sunlight.
Piece 2: Stupid Fish Paper
When I was 8 or 9, I published a newspaper about the sometimes-sordid goings on in my tropical fish tank. The Tank Town Advocate came out bi-weekly, at best, and was sold for a dime to loyal readers on Wilton Street in Princeton, New Jersey. Most of its articles were penned by the same ambitious young reporter, Dudley the Black Molly, who, in a major conflict of interest, also happened to be the mayor of Tank Town.
To me it was inconceivable that my neighbors would not be as fascinated as I was by the alarming mortality rates, the sexual misadventures, the mysterious disappearances, and, on a possibly related note, the occasional descent into cannibalism that characterized a typical news cycle in Tank Town. On weeks when I didn’t publish, I would imagine the Kaufmans next door, ringing their hands, desperate for the scoop, unable to sleep at night as they agonized over the fate of Merle the Zebra Fish, who was valiantly battling White Spot Disease—a battle she would ultimately lose.
Clearly it was my civic duty to keep everyone informed. And inform I did, often at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning, in my best imitation of a Depression-era paperboy: “Extra, Extra. Read all about it. Hank the Guppy Gives Birth. Scientists Baffled.”
If I very occasionally heard Mr. Kaufman yell out the window, “It’s 7 in the morning. Pipe down, kid!” well, I figured he was probably talking to some other kid.
I should back up here and say that I have a much older brother whom I studied with an anthropologist’s eye. A lot of the Advocate’s news items were, essentially, my brother’s life experiences, bizarrely repurposed and filtered through the brain of a weird 8-year-old kid pretending to be a tropical fish pretending to be a journalist.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, then, one week after my brother graduated from high school, the young citizens of Tank Town celebrated their own graduation from Tank Town Academy—a rarified private school with a small but beautiful campus between the treasure chest and the water filter. It’s true that half of the graduating class had perished in the Great Overfeeding Debacle of 1984, but still there was much to celebrate.
The Tank Town Advocate graduation issue was the paper’s second highest seller of all time. I don’t mean to brag here, but it sold a whopping five copies: one to my mother, 2 to my Aunt Lois, 1 to the Kaufmans after I blocked the path to their car as they were rushing off to temple, and one to my brother, who, according to family lore, collected the Advocate as part of his campaign to have me committed and so regain his status as only child.
One day, a shocking crime rocked this sleepy aquatic community to its very core: A case of steadily mounting domestic violence resulted in the death of Leslie the Neon Tetra. Leslie’s husband, Daryl, was tried, found guilty, and executed by means of becoming dinner for a hungry garter snake (Sam IV, who, three weeks later, died of mouth disease).
Tank Town had lost its innocence, and the Advocate published a double issue that week, complete with an artist's rendering of Daryl's final, frantically flipping moments in the lair of his executor. I felt sure my readers would be desperate for the scoop, so before the ink was even dry – and without looking at the clock – I grabbed the papers and raced out the door. I reached the first house on my route, the Kaufman's, and began knocking wildly.
"Extra! Extra! Read all about! Murderer put to death!"
No one answered. I kept pounding. And yelling. Finally, a disheveled Mrs. Kaufman opened the door, eyes blazing.
"What’s wrong with you? It's 6:30 in the morning, for Christ's sake!"
"But- But-" I stammered, holding up the Advocate so she could read the provocative headline.
"The fish paper? You woke us up for the stupid fish paper?"
Two weeks later, Petunia the Guppy gave birth to seven babies, then ate each and every one of them. The Tank Town Advocate didn't run an article. The paper had closed its doors forever.
I had never really liked the Kaufmans, who were childless and unsmiling, but after the “fish paper” debacle, they became the Hatfields to my McCoy. I imagined Mrs. Kaufman recounting the incident to her husband: “Go back to sleep if you can. It was that weird Phillips boy from next door.” I knew she’d get my sex wrong, just like I knew that Mr. Kaufman, who owned the store on Nassau Street where my mother had forced me to buy the only dress I owned, wouldn’t bother correcting her.
I became a crazed and muttering revenge seeker, hell-bent on extracting some sort of restitution for my unjust humiliation. In the dim light of my basement lair, I drew up elaborate plans involving water balloons, shaving cream, and duct tape. “What’s going on down there?” my mother asked after I finally emerged one evening, pale and cross-eyed from my subterranean plotting.
“Believe me,” I told her, “the less you know the better.” I slipped into my room and changed into my army man Halloween costume.
I was both deeply relieved and gravely disappointed that neither Kaufman ever fell into the man-sized pit I dug in their backyard. Sal D’Amato, the gardener for most families on our suburban block, must have discovered the thing one day and filled it in. Coming home from school, I found the camouflaged covering – a duct-taped toupee of leaves, twigs, and clumps of grass – sitting next to my Huffy dirt bike along with a note that read, “Next time I tell your mother.” Go ahead and tell her, I thought. See if I care what that traitor thinks.
My mother was Public Enemy Number One that year, thanks to the publication of her second book, the in-retrospect-fairly-tame Sexual Confidence. I lived in constant dread of being exposed as the daughter of a pervert, and in malls, parking lots, and doctors’ offices, I’d throw myself at her feet, begging her to turn down guest spots on Phil Donahue.
“Do you hate me? Are you trying to ruin my life?” I’d wail, missing the irony as crowds gathered to watch her drag my thrashing body back to the car.
Bribed with Star Wars action figures and baseball cards, I would submit with foul-tempered bad grace to family viewings of her television appearances – then do my level best to ruin everyone else’s good time. As my mother smilingly instructed studio audiences to spice up their marriages with an “Intimacy Weekend,” I’d harrumph, “Yeah, like that’s really going to work.” I had no idea what “intimacy” was, but it sounded bad. It sounded like something that my fourth grade reputation, precarious at the best of times, couldn’t afford.
This was a good three years before Ryan Brannon’s innocent football field tackle left me hot, bothered, and very confused. At 10, I was still going to Pepé, the barber, and demanding that he “make me look as much like a boy as possible”; still stomping around the neighborhood topless in my brother’s old sweatpants, and throwing rocks at cars with Nick and Colin. Somewhere along the line a terrible mistake had been made. Girlhood, with its pink-and-frilly trappings, was an unacceptable state of affair, and my only recourse was denial.
“I have a wonderful surprise,” my mother announced over dinner. “It’s something that will bring us together as a family.” My father was in the basement tinkering with his ham radio; my brother didn’t look up from The New York Times, but I was instantly alert. I didn’t like where this conversation was heading, not one bit.
The reporter and photographer from People magazine arrived that weekend. Their vision: the love doctor at play with her devoted family. These were hard-bitten celebrity journalists, used to dealing with the likes of Sean Penn after a night of binge drinking. I’m sure they’d imagined that this assignment – a suburban family on the golf course, at the fishing hole, buying ice cream in town – would be a cakewalk by comparison.
“If you make me go through with this, you’ll regret it,” I threatened for maybe the 600th time. “I’ll tell the world what you’re really like.” My mother was bribing me, limb by spoiled-rotten limb, into my tights and “Flash Gordon” dress – a denim number covered in iron-on superhero patches.
This should have been a proud day for her, the culmination of a year of near-constant publicity touring, but my rebellion of the last few days had left her tense and edgy, a tired ghost of woman in a Pucci pants suit. “For the love of God, I’m begging you, put on your Mary Janes.”
At the golf course, my mother posed on the putting green while my brother napped against a tree and my father read Sky and Telescope. Seizing my moment, I snuck up to the reporter. “She keeps me chained up in the basement,” I stage-whispered out of the side of my mouth. “I haven’t seen the sun in 33 days.” He took in my tanned face and smiled uncertainly. What would it take to get through to this man?
At Lake Carnegie, I boycotted the fishing shoot on the grounds of my vegetarianism and slipped a note into the photographer’s pocket: “She kidnapped me last month. My real parents live in Kansas. Call the police!” He read it and made a feeble attempt to wink in my direction.
By the end of the day, both men were weary from listening to my litany of fabricated abuse. Still, the reporter gamely shook my mother’s hand and tried to put a positive spin on my behavior. “That son of yours has quite an imagination, Dr. Phillips.”
My mother eyed my brother, who was snoring soundly in the backseat of the car, skeptically. “Do you really think so?” The beleaguered man blushed, realizing his mistake, but it was too late. I had already stormed into the house, slamming the door and trading in my dress for sweatpants.
The issue of People magazine featuring our family sat on the coffee table, largely unread, until its pages yellowed and curled. A decade later, rifling through the filing cabinet in my mother’s L.A. condo, I found it under “P” for Publicity. Staring at the grainy images of my long-ago family, I tried to see us through the eyes of a stranger on line at the supermarket. There’s Dr. Phillips, so young and pretty, gaily swinging one of the golf clubs that she would donate to Good Will later that year. There’s her husband, holding an ice cream cone, masking his shyness with a brave half-smile. There’s my brother, a skinny 16-year-old boy with a mouthful of braces, casting into the lake. And then there’s me: a girl who looks like a boy, peering out from behind her father’s leg. She’s scowling in her denim dress, scowling at the camera, at the photographer, at her mother. She’s scowling at the world.
Boxy’s Big Adventure
While the rest of the family oohed and ahhed over the shiny new refrigerator, I became fast friends with the cardboard box it had been shipped in. Don’t let them throw me away, the box whispered. I’m counting on you.
“Where do you think you’re going with that?” My mother glared at the soil tracks on the hall carpet, and then looked from the box to me and back to the box.
Stay strong, kiddo, the box instructed. She’s trying to rattle you. “Boxy and I are going up to my room,” I said, leaning against the wall in a parody of casual: just a girl and her misshapen cardboard – nothing to see here!
My mother’s face blanched at my use of the diminutive “Boxy.” The thing had been named, which meant that simple bribery was out of the question.
“Your sister is not crazy. She just feels things very deeply. She’s, um, compassionate,” she once told my brother after my third-grade teacher called home to report yet another “incident.” I had launched myself bodily between Mrs. Moore and the trashcan as she’d tried to throw away a piece of dirty chalk. When the vice-principal arrived to drag me from the room, I was clutching the yellow nub to my bosom and singing, “When Chalky was in Egypt’s land, let my Chalky go” – a variation on my favorite Passover song.
“So why isn’t she compassionate to us?” my brother wanted to know. “She only cares about animals and things, not other people.”
He was right. A complicated taxonomic hierarchy existed in my head, and humans fell somewhere between punctured beach balls and bits of Scotch tape. Mine was a universe governed by oddball crusades for justice and impossible ethical dilemmas. I didn’t want to be that kid on her hands and knees, gathering up the popped balloons at the end of the birthday party, but someone had to do it. How else would they get to balloon heaven? The rotten jack-o-lantern in my closet didn’t smell good to me either, but what kind of brute would I be if I abandoned the mealy gourd to its fate? The rules governing my 10-year-old universe were neither rational nor consistent: I ate the sickeningly sweet maraschino cherries to spare their feelings, while other food, yummy food, inexplicably begged to go the way of the compost heap.
No, Boxy’s was not the first inanimate soul I’d tried to save, but it was certainly the largest, and I soon discovered the challenges of sharing a small bedroom with 25 cubic feet of brown cardboard.
“I’m sorry, but this is a fire hazard,” my mother declared after trying and failing to squeeze her way into my room.
“Take my bed,” I begged. “I can sleep in Boxy.” But I knew me friend’s days were numbered if I didn’t act fast.
Boxy and I left home that night under cover of darkness, setting up camp in the woods behind the Kaufman’s house. We’ll live off the land, just you and me, kiddo! The box was optimistic, but after a few sleepless hours shivering in my too-thin blanket, I wasn’t so sure.
My family awoke the next morning to find my 3-page treatise, “In my own words, by Boxy Phillips,” taped up around the house. Through an open window, I could just make out my brother reading aloud and offering commentary, voice dripping with mockery. “‘Just because you can’t hear me, that doesn’t mean I cannot speak. I have a soul just like yours.’ Oh. My. God. We are living with a crazy person and I’m the only one who sees it.”
They went about their business, my family, supremely unconcerned that one of their own had departed for parts unknown. It started to drizzle and I contemplated a future within the walls of this increasingly dilapidated home. How would I live? What would I eat? Would I ever see “The Dukes of Hazard” again?
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, Mrs. Kaufman was standing at Boxy’s door, a plate of lumpy looking cookies in one hand and a copy of “In my own words, by Boxy Phillips” – I had taped copies up around the neighborhood – in the other. She had been my nemesis, this slight, stooped woman with her thinning hair and her beady eyes. But now she was the most welcome sight in the world, a link with the civilization I thought I’d lost. “Go take a shower, boy, you’re starting to stink.”
“But--” I gestured at Boxy, whose pleading voice seemed to be growing softer in my head.
Mrs. Kaufman sighed. “Your friend can stay, at least until he starts to rot.”
I grabbed a cookie and ran home.