It's What You Don't Design

by Jack Owens, 3.24am May 10th 2021

Mom was gone, Dad was in the living room with the bigger T.V., and I stayed shut in my room playing video games. So long as I was in my room they’d stopped caring when I went to bed. Mom, as always, fed me before she left. That night it was mac and cheese–from the box, but mom always added extra ingredients to disguise that, stuff like peas and sausage. She used to stay home every night, I even vaguely recall her and dad laughing, reading books beside each other before bed, but after staying in got quiet she would get away for long stretches during the weekends. The books lay stacked on their nightstands covered over in dust.


*


I drove into the town under a cloud like a brooding thunderstorm. The sight of it reminded me of a destination icon in this old game I used to play the way the cloud stayed in place, moving but confined to invisible borders. You’d hover over the option and up pops a valley town with mountains surrounding, an active volcano directly behind, and that cloud. In the game you could fast travel; in my too real life I had to ride slowly into it. More time to think of all the faces I hoped not to see, and above all the one I came to. Wheat beside the highway leaned towards the cloud like being sucked in.


*


Dad came in without a knock dressed to go. He called me buddy or sport or something and we went from the house. The glow of the dashboard lights and of the city we were descending to. The drive from our house halfway up the foothills was filled with the same sermon inspired lectures, as was every moment with him. Dad went to catholic school, his folks wanted him to be a priest but he never attended church in adulthood besides marriage and baptizing me. That night it was about bugs, which ones we kill and which ones we don’t. He told me True Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, they don’t kill any bugs. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was he said about me killing oversized evil bugs in my “television games,” but I remember the guilt it brought. I don’t know if that’s how he meant it, but just his mentioning video games made me feel shameful and shrunken in the passenger seat. For a time the drive is dark, shrouded by hills on either side. With the dashboard lights I could always see the stubble speckled on his face, the dark patch of mustache. His face never lost shape although his eyes were these dark, empty holes.


*


Small towns reminded me of video games. People acted like NPC’s, reliably in the same areas with slight variation, and after so many interactions you come to find they mostly say the same things. Same guy came running out to pump my gas in the same striped shirt. Same curly haired man riding his bike in circles through downtown, stopping to drink at the same coffee shop, trying to maintain some kind of youthful essence. Same lady took our orders; I tried something different this time. Everyone was the same except for dad. He looked shrunken, cordial to those around him without those muted, patronizing expressions. Even with me he approached cautiously, puppy eyed and reading my body language for consent before opening his arms for a hug.


*


So the town opened. I could see his eyes better. They scared me still, small behind their shadowed hoods, squinted and alert. Small town with buildings that looked much taller to me then passing with the lights; streetlights overhead, lights of bars and closed businesses underneath the weight of the rest of their buildings. Dad was searching for something among them. He was talking about cockroaches. He said take the cockroach for example, nobody likes cockroaches, but the thing about them is that you can’t kill a cockroach, not easily, and what’s more is that they aren’t even dangerous. Cockroaches never hurt anyone, they’re hated for no good reason, but they don’t let it kill them. We zig zagged all of the streets. I realized once he turned again we were going back over the same three or four blocks we’d already been down. Each of them had at least one bar with some guy smoking outside, same guy at all of them in my memory, wearing a button up shirt rolled up at the sleeves and a pair of cargo shorts, sun burnt red skin like he would soon burst. Dad stared at them through dark windows.


*


He didn’t lecture. No recycled proverbs with his own spin, none at all. He asked questions and talked about himself when I did the same. I told him about designing games and he seemed proud. Learned he worked at a bookstore downtown, quit his construction job after one too many injuries. If it weren’t for the surprise of his behavior I might have really leaned into this simulation idea like I was fucking crazy. But dad, well I come close to saying he was a husk, but it was different than that, almost as if he had always had one but was shed of it and underneath was this raw, vulnerable thing. A thing that no longer had the option to preoccupy itself with the importance of itself. The man was never optimized for the things people and the world outside will do. He closed himself off to others for so long he didn’t know how to reverse it. On the drive out of town, I too felt defeated from seeing him as someone I’d never known, all the while wondering if maybe I had. Worse yet, I finally saw resemblance in our design.


*


Outside a bar past the sunburnt man she stumbled, laughing and intimately nestled between the arms of her best friend and her best friend’s husband. I pointed because I was excited, and he slowed down for a minute until we were noticed. Then the car shot off with a pop and roar from the engine. He drove so fast that I remember telling him I was scared and making little grunts and yelps. He told me it was like one of my driving games. I don’t remember coming home.