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————————Cullen McMahon————————


WHEN the doorbell rang, I was in my room pretending to put on a holiday sweater while actually playing my fifth consecutive hour of Super Mario Brothers. In those days I had a Nintendo with an 8-bit processor, a now-stone-age machine that generated about fourteen colors and shoddy audio, as if every sound was being piped through a busted kazoo. I loved it.

The doorbell chimed again. “The door!” my father yelled. He was a conservative man who didn’t believe in credit, purchased only used cars, and doled out words as stingily as twenty dollar bills. A definite article and noun would suffice for almost any situation.

My mother screamed back from the kitchen, “I am only ONE PERSON!” When I wasn’t playing video games, I often puzzled over the philosophical meaning of this statement. Weren’t we all just one person?  Of course I knew what she really meant: that she was cooking a twenty pound turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, Brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie while simultaneously curling her hair and so, no, as a matter of fact, she couldn’t answer the door.

I maneuvered Mario onto an innocent-looking sewer pipe where he was quickly devoured by a Venus fly trap. Game over. I looked at the sweaters on my bed. My mother had laid out two: one spangled with elves, the other ducks. Nowadays you might classify this kind of sweater as retro preppy, or hipster ironic, but in 1989 it was only deeply embarrassing.

I pulled on the mallards and entered the upstairs hall. My brother and sister were in their rooms, doors shut as if against a plague.

On this day of coming together and giving thanks, our family didn’t seem very interested in coming together or giving thanks. It had been a difficult year. My sister had decided to take a job in Princeton, New Jersey, dashing everyone’s hopes of her moving home permanently to Michigan. My brother, who, at thirty, seemed fated to live with us forever, blasting White Snake at high volume and doing bicep curls on the front lawn, had recently met someone and moved in with her. I felt adrift, alone. My parents had begun to drink and fight a lot and I thought it was all my fault. I’d stunned my mother by quitting tennis that summer. In the aftermath, my father decided I should play his sport, baseball. I had no talent. I swung the bat spasmodically, like a deranged samurai warrior. I hit the ball once and ran up the third base line before turning around and being tagged out at home. People on the sidelines pointed and laughed. My father watched alone, in his car. When I told him I was quitting he only peered at me over his newspaper, then went back to reading.

That fall, my mother entered Alcoholics Anonymous, which helped her get sober. It also introduced her to new friends, one of whom she’d invited to Thanksgiving dinner. “You’ll love him,” she’d told us the day before. “Of course, he has had some problems in his life—”

“The bottle,” my father interrupted, clarifying this remark by putting his thumb to his lips as if to drink.

“—but he just needs some cheering up,” my mother continued. “He’s divorcing and, well, we don’t need to mention that. Let’s treat him like, you know, family.”

My brother and sister and l exchanged glances as that last word stumbled through the room.

Now, I took a deep breath and opened the front door. A man stood on our porch wearing no coat, only layers of sweaters, about four of them. The top-most, ripped and tattered, featured prancing reindeer under a crescent moon. He had a prominent brow, a thick beard and long, greasy hair that fell to his shoulders. If it had been Halloween I would have put a Snickers in his hand and said, “Let me guess—a Neanderthal!”

Instead, in an oddly soft voice, he introduced himself as John. I let him in and quickly sprinted upstairs and burst into my brother’s room.

“Mom’s friend is here,” I said. “He looks like a caveman. Come quick!”

Soon, we were all seated at the dining room table, listening to each other chew. The silence was excruciating—and strange. Rather than feel embarrassed for this man, I was embarrassed for my own family. His mere presence seemed to expose our dysfunction, our inability to communicate with each other.

“So, John” my father said at last. “Diana tells me you’re going through a divorce.”

My brother’s fork clattered on the floor (no accident) and he excused himself to fetch a replacement. I did the same and then my sister followed. The three of us huddled in the kitchen.

“He’s kind of cute,” my sister said, “you know, in a primitive sort of way.”

“He’s definitely primitive,” my brother said. “That is, aside from the reindeer sweater.”

He slapped me on the back. “Mighty charitable to lend him one of yours.”

“I hate this sweater! Mom made me wear it.”

My siblings stared at me, as if to state the obvious: that I was fourteen and should probably start dressing myself. “Here’s a theory,” my brother said. “Maybe he’s the Missing Link. You know, like from the movie?”

I remembered. We’d rented it months earlier, just before things got weird in my family. The only character was a pre-lingual man-ape, the last of a fictional species that’s been exterminated by early homo sapiens. Fittingly, it was a silent film.

My brother was poking me in the ribs. “What do you think he benches, huh? Two fifty? Three hundred?”

I looked at my brother—suddenly I didn’t recognize him. Then I understood: he’d grown a mustache. “When did you grow a mustache?”

“I don’t know, a month ago?”

I wasn’t sure what was worse, that I hadn’t seen him in a month or that neither of us realized it until now. I wanted to crawl under the kitchen table and never come out. I might have, in fact, had I not heard an odd, vaguely familiar noise.

The three of us moved in a kind of hypnotized trance back toward the dining room where the sound grew louder and more distinct. It came from my parents. They were laughing. Together. Stranger yet, my father had left his spot at the head of the table and taken my seat, adjacent to my mother. John was in the middle of a story—something about the cat his wife seized in the divorce—and he had my parents in stitches. I sat down and watched my parents, watched them as if they were new exhibits in a zoo I’d been to a thousand times.

When the story was over my father pushed back his chair but I said it was ok, we could switch places. I passed him his plate and he passed me mine. John told a few more stories, then asked us for some. I told one. So did my sister. John said he’d heard I was a tennis player. I blushed at that and mumbled into my lap about taking some time off. I glanced up and met my mother’s gaze—full of pride and love—and I knew then that none of it was my fault. It’s ok, she seemed to say. It will be ok.

At Christmas that year, the last present I opened was a new video game system. It had revolutionary features like diagonal movement and stereo sound. Its flagship character was a hyper-active hedgehog, far cooler than Nintendo’s plumber whose mustache now reminded me of my brother. I carried the box up to my room with a two-liter of Mountain Dew and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I planned to binge-play until the sun rose in three days and I had to go back to school. When I reached the top step I paused and, after a moment, turned around. I walked down the stairs and crossed the hall into the family room where my father was sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper. I hooked up the console.

Papers rustled. A chair creaked. My father sat on the floor next to me. “The controller,” he said.

I handed it to him, and together we played.

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