Authors: David Zimmerman
“But why would you want to be someone else?” Wynn asked.
Dani caught my eye and grinned. Wynn looked back and forth between us, wearing a smile that looked like it hurt.
“What?” he said. “What?”
“Alright,” Dani said.
“Alright, what?” Wynn said.
“Make me a fifty-year-old gay guy from Dothan, Alabama, The Peanut Capital of the World.”
“With gorgeous pecs,” I added.
And so Wynn showed us how to become a fifty-year-old gay guy from Dothan, Alabama. We were never quite ourselves again after that.
y mother is a nurse and my father is an asshole. He left us when I was six. For the first couple of years after the divorce, he lived in Savannah and came up on weekends to see me. He paid his child support. My dad was an accountant at the Gulfstream airplane factory. “Your father makes a pile of cash,” my mom would say whenever I asked her to get me something. “Ask him for it.” Or she’d say, “You can go see
movie with your father if you think you can shake ten bucks out of him.” Or, “If your father had half a heart, he’d get you some decent shoes.”
“Your mother has an active imagination,” is what he’d tell me when I asked him. “Rich, my ass,” he’d say. “Gulfstream doesn’t even have a union. At least not for accountants.”
The last time I ever saw my dad was the Saturday he took me out to Tybee Island. In the parking lot, he swiped me a ratty orange life vest off of someone’s boat trailer. He reached in and grabbed it and just kept walking toward the beach.
I was three weeks away from being eight years old. When Dad didn’t call on my birthday, my mom tried to reach him and found his phone had been disconnected. She called his boss out at Gulfstream, who said he’d stopped showing up for work three days ago and hadn’t left a forwarding address. He and my dad had been friends since high school, so my mom thought Mack—that was the boss’s name—was covering for him. She said she hoped his wife did the same thing to him one day and for him to go fuck
himself. She wrapped the phone cord around her fingers so tight they turned yellow.
The next day, Mack called back. There was a problem with Dad’s accounts. The day after that, the police came to our house.
I asked what Dad had done to make everybody so mad at him. My mom said, “Your father’s an asshole. He did what comes natural to assholes. He shit all over everybody.”
The year I turned eight I learned how to do laundry, make Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a box, and smoke cigarettes.
I now divide my life into two parts—BDD and ADD—Before Dad Disappeared and After Dad Disappeared, and more and more I don’t remember a lot about BDD.
I do remember Tybee Island, though.
He must of known he was leaving by then.
I wonder if he’d planned to tell me.
Or maybe he didn’t know yet. And when he figured it out, it was too late to say anything.
His hair was curly and red and very thin on top. The sun turned his scalp the color of boiled shrimp. We treaded water out past the breakers, the gulls calling out threats to one another and the sunlight smashing into millions of pieces in the choppy water.
ani and me went through dozens of cheesy adult social sites before we settled on
The Big Green Bus
. The description said you’d love it if you always saved out the green M&M’s for special occasions because here was a site where everyone downed them by the handful. We guessed this was some type of reference to horniness. Officially, it was a site that listed evening entertainment in Chicago, but it also had a message board that you needed to become a member in order to see. The first few sites we’d tried were mostly filled with dorks like Wynn and other species of babbling idjit. Even when we’d pick out somebody that seemed halfway normal to send instant messages to, the guy would start right in with raunchy sex talk. “I’m jacking off right now thinking about you” or “I’m putting my fingers in your pussy and you like it.” The thing was, we didn’t like it. Not one bit. Dani and me didn’t mind talking about sex, we liked to actually, it came up all the time, but not like we were actors in a made-for-cable porn movie. So we decided to try a not-so-obvious place to play.
The Big Green Bus
was for “progressive adults in the Greater Chicago Area,” whatever the hell that meant. Dani felt certain “progressive” meant perverted. One of the ways we tested a possible site was by trying to access it from her dad’s computer upstairs. If her mom’s anti-sex block let us view it, then we knew it was definitely a tame site for kiddies.
The Big Green Bus
got blocked. Just to see the home page you had to type in a birth date proving
you were twenty-one or older and sign a release promising you were a “mature, professional adult.” Its motto was:
A vehicle for single professionals to meet and socialize for a stop or two, or maybe go along for the long haul
the bus might take you
. I couldn’t decide if this was supposed to be funny or what. Dani thought not. It worried me who would be in here if this was supposed to be serious.
We threw out an opener on the message page—basically,
I’m lonely, young and female, help!
—and waited. It took longer than we thought it would. Dani made me refresh the page every few minutes. After nearly an hour, some guy checked out the fake photo Wynn had clipped from a website for preschool teachers called
The Peaceable Kidom
, and decided we were cute enough to ask if we wanted to instant message. Our name that night was Tabitha. Dani thought it sounded sophisticated. The guy’s online name was Adguy 1092, but once we started exchanging instant messages, he told us his name was actually Hank. He designed El ads in Chicago (Dani was convinced this was what city people called elevators until we Googled it).
After the very obvious
Rule #1: Don’t use your real name
, we devised
Rule #2: Find out what your opponent really wants and determine why he thinks he can only get it online, so you can turn this against him later
Each time Hank provided an answer Dani didn’t like (for example, Q: How many inches around are your biceps? A: Twelve inches), she would shout, “Lie!” and we’d stop for a moment to discuss a new approach. At one point her mom came down to see what the ruckus was all about. “It’s a science game on the computer. They give you a bunch of true-or-false questions about stuff like dolphins and then the program rates your knowledge,” she told a very skeptical Mrs. Dunham. Dani had gone to the trouble of providing an alibi should this moment come. As her mom came
down the stairs, Dani clicked the little box at the bottom of the screen and up popped a photo of a dolphin munching on a dirty, yellow fish. “Some of these questions are so easy it’s a little annoying. Sorry if I got too loud. I mean, really, who doesn’t know a dolphin chews its cud like a cow? Why else would they be nicknamed sea cows? Jeez.”
” I sounded like such a dumbass. When I panicked back then, I tended to imitate Dani. I even said, “
” in a slightly higher pitch, something that used to drive me crazy when she did it.
“Sea cows,” her mom said, “huh.”
“Right,” Dani said, “or that when they have to pass gas it comes out of their snort hole.”
“You enjoying this game, Lynn?” Mrs. Dunham said, turning her skeptical squint on me. “About dolphins passing gas?” This last bit sounded more than a little sarcastic. I chewed my lip. Mrs. Dunham’s eyes got even squintier. She yanked on Dani’s earlobe. “You all aren’t looking at naked sex pictures, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” we said in a ragged chorus.
She let loose of Dani’s ear.
“Well.” She peered over Dani’s shoulder at the photo of the dingy dolphin and its diseased-looking lunch. “Make sure you let Lynn have a turn, honey, and pipe down. Your father’s going over his sales numbers.”
Once her mom closed the door at the top of the stairs, Dani counted to thirty and then we got rid of Mr. Scabs the dolphin and went back to Hank, who seemed almost deranged by our short delay in answering his instant messages. We explained it away as a break for personal needs. Despite his growing clinginess, Dani had to work surprisingly hard to get him to admit why he really cruised around sites like this. Hank claimed to be tired of the singles scene, tired of going out to bars to meet people, and tired of going
to work with a hangover. He’d only moved to Chicago for his job a couple of months before, so he didn’t know anyone yet. Dani thought there was more to it than that. She was right. Finally, Hank admitted, he felt homesick for his hometown of Pana, Illinois, and these city women he met in the bars here intimidated him. “I’m always afraid they’re laughing at me behind my back,” he wrote. That’s why he was so excited to meet a small-town girl like us. Dani laughed so hard the strawberry Yoo-hoo she was sipping on came out of her nose. I knew exactly how Hank felt. Well, almost.
“What a stupe,” Dani said, unable to stop giggling. “Let’s mess with him a little.”
And thus we came to
, which was to be the rule that changed our aimless pranking into The Game:
Use the info you get from rule number two to make them do your bidding or simply to mess with their heads
. We decided to make Tabitha’s life somewhat similar to our Algebra teacher, Ms. Oliff’s, with some small adjustments. Like her being cool, for one.
Us: I’m twenty-five and there’s not a soul in this crappy little nowhere burg to date. Everyone’s either a kid or a geezer. I’m bored most of the time. Sometimes I sit up all night flipping through the Sears catalog and fantasizing about the men in the thermal underwear section.
Hank: I know the feeling. Even though I’m in a big city and there’s lots to do, I don’t have anyone to go out and do stuff with, so I end up at home most of the time. Sometimes I fantasize with magazines too.
“I bet you do, big boy,” Dani said, snickering. “Probably spends all night in the bathroom with a copy of
I considered pointing out she’d often done the same. Dani was fascinated by
magazine. She even talked me into buying a copy from the Texaco station the summer before, and we spent an evening scrutinizing the various boobs on display, discussing their
design flaws. Six months later I discovered the magazine in her closet, tucked under her sweaters, even though she’d made a big production of throwing it away in disgust the same night we bought it. It looked wrinkled and well read. Some of the pages were marked with dog-ears and had handwritten notes like
my boobs would look like this if they were a cup size bigger
“I think we need to spice it up some,” she said. “This is boring the hell out of me. I think the problem here is he’s a loser. I don’t believe I want to know his darkest secrets.”
She sat down, scootched me out of the chair and set to typing.
Us: That sounds pretty pathetic. You live in one of the biggest cities in America with lots of cool nightclubs and places to go. It’s not your imagination. Those women
laughing at you!
Hank wrote back that we were a nut-cutting, ball-busting bitch and then put a block on our name and stopped sending messages. We laughed.
“What the hell is a nut-cutter?” Dani asked.
“You,” I said.
on’t get played
ere are my mom’s five ADD (After Dad Disappeared) boyfriends in the order they showed up:
1. Roy—This guy came into the emergency room one Sunday afternoon after an engine he was working on cracked the tree branch holding it up and broke five bones in his foot. He and my mom were only together for three months. I have no idea why it ended and I wasn’t about to ask.
2. Joe Carey—I was never supposed to know about this one because he was married. Joe Carey was an insurance salesman. He came into the emergency room on a rainy Wednesday evening after slicing open his palm with a broken wine bottle, wearing a disposable diaper wrapped around his hand. He got seventeen stitches and my mom for about six months.
3. Keith—My mom discovered Keith rolling around and groaning on the floor of the emergency room one evening after he’d gobbled an enormous Mexican buffet dinner. He thought he was having a heart attack but was actually only suffering from heartburn. Three months later she told me not to mention his name again, explaining, “He’s king of the rat bastards. I’ll never eat a summer squash again.” (I didn’t ask.)
4. Duane—One day in November after school, there he was, sprawled out on the sofa drinking beer and looking at an
afternoon talk show. He had short black hair with a streak of gray above his left ear and eyes the color of rain clouds.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked.
He waited a full thirty seconds before he patted the cushion beside him and said, “I’m your new daddy. Come sit down over here with me and I’ll let you have a sip of my beer.”
I walked straight over to the hospital and found my mom. She told me he’d only be there a night. One night became a month. And like a bad roach infestation, she needed the help of pros to get rid of him—two orderlies from the hospital. He broke my favorite lamp as they dragged him out. It had a picture of a mermaid made from colored bits of stone.
5. Hayes—She met him long before he met her. Hayes was unconscious for several days, after running his truck into a ditch. When he came to, the first thing he saw was Mom changing his IV bag. “My old, sweet mama was wrong about me,” he said. “I knew I’d go to heaven.”
I tended to agree with his mama, but sadly, he was still here with mine.
ani made me take the empty beer bottles with me. When the knock came, they were sitting in a plastic bag right there on our kitchen table. I should of tossed them in the grass on the bike ride home, but A) I was paranoid someone would see me and tell my mom or the police, and B) that’s littering. I was still trying to think how I could dump them before my mom got back where there’d be zero chance of getting caught.