Creative Nonfiction

I Have No Idea
by Eric Chandler

The object was to rescue the last human family while simultaneously killing the robots coming after you. You were a noble warrior, saving your loved ones while fighting off the violent hordes. After destroying each wave, you moved to a more difficult level. I can still hear the sound effects in my head. Even if you rescued everybody, you still had to kill every single robot. One level had so many robots we called it the Who concert, after the recent stampede that killed fans who rushed to see the band. Robotron was the king of all video games. If I ever see one again, I’ll offer to buy it and bring it home.

I was hanging out with my friend. I’ll call him Mel. We were driving around in my family’s car. If you can call a LeCar an automobile. How many cars have you started with a choke? I have a chainsaw with a choke. But a car? I called it LeCarcass. It didn’t even have a radio. I put a portable AM/FM radio in the back seat that was powered by D batteries. I imagine the song “Owner of the Lonely Heart” playing on that radio.

Lose yourself. 

You always live your life 

Never thinking of the future. 

That would make it 1983. Between my sophomore and junior year. Mel was my sarcastic soulmate. We convinced a gullible classmate of ours that the upcoming alignment of the planets would be the end of the world. We went to a 10k footrace sponsored by Pepsi just so we could take the Pepsi Challenge there and pick Coke. We were little jerks who were made for each other. One time, we drove that stupid LeCar to see The Fixx in concert in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. And now, I parked that tinny gray box right outside the door of the video arcade.

We pumped quarters into the machine and got our Robotron adrenaline rush. Then, we got hungry like teenagers do. We decided to go to a sandwich place at the other end of Main Street called the 175. We opened the door and Mel stepped out of the arcade first. As we left, some football players were going in. It was a guy I’ll call Roy and a couple of his buddies. Twenty pounds heavier than me.

Roy looked at Mel and said, “Hey, [n-word].” Then, he went inside.

I stood on the cement and Mel walked toward the car, just a few steps away.

“Are you going to take that?” I asked.

Mel said, “I hear that kind of stuff all the time.”

“Well, I don’t.” Mel shrugged and got into the LeCar. I went back into the arcade.

I walked up to Roy and said, “You don’t get to say that to my friend. Let’s go outside.”

“Just you?” He and his cronies started drooling.

“Just me.” We all walked out together, me and Roy and his sidekicks.

We squared up. My back was to the LeCar. Roy stood on the sidewalk facing me. He took off his glasses and handed them to one of his friends. He started talking. I was in some calm, faraway place. He had a smirk on his face.

I stepped into him with all I had. I tried to put my fist through his eyes and out the back of his head. He fell to his knees and held his face. I stood over him ready to follow up. I screamed at him. I sounded like I was speaking in tongues like De Niro’s Max Cady as he drowns in the movie “Cape Fear.”

I must’ve asked a question. His answer was, “No,” as he shook his head. I glared at his friends and turned to my car. I drove with Mel to the 175. We sat down and I held my sandwich in shaking hands.

My life was shaped by this moment. I proved to myself that I was willing to fight for what was right. This would affect where I chose to go to college. What profession I would pick. I replayed my righteous act over and over in my mind. Several years ago, I sat down to write this story. To explore the impact it had on my future. To show what a Good Man I am. I texted Mel to check some facts. I asked him if he remembered that time I punched Roy. He said yes. I was glad he validated my memory. I also asked if he remembered Roy calling him that name.

Mel said that, if Roy said that, he didn’t hear it.

 

It’s been four years since Mel told me I had it wrong. I’ve been scouring my brain ever since. I wrote about the video arcade from memory. Then I went to the internet to prove the truth of my story. That was a mistake.

The Who concert where people died happened around five years before my video game career, so it certainly wasn’t a “recent” event like I thought.

The band Yes didn’t release “Owner of a Lonely Heart” until October 1983, so none of that happened in the summer of 1983. Maybe all of this happened in 1984. And it’s owner of “A”, not owner of “The.”

The first lyrics of the song are “Move yourself” not “Lose yourself.”

I asked my high school friends on social media if they remembered a sandwich shop called 175. They did. But it was called 174 because it was at 174 Main Street. I would’ve bet a month’s pay it was called 175.

That Fixx concert? It was July 11, 1986 when they opened for the Moody Blues. I didn’t go to that concert with Mel during high school. It was after my freshman year of college. Now I’m not even sure it was Mel.

There is no tape or film I can play back. No audio recording on the internet of what Roy said. One thing is sure. A lot of what I remember is verifiably wrong.

Maria Konnikova wrote a piece for The New Yorker in 2015 titled “You Have No Idea What Happened.” She quotes researcher Elizabeth Phelps:

 

“The more we learn about emotional memory, the more we realize that we can never say what someone will or won’t remember given a particular set of circumstances.” The best we can do, she says, is to err on the side of caution: unless we are talking about the most central part of the recollection, assume that our confidence is misplaced. More often than not, it is.

 

What worries me about this quote is that I can’t even guarantee the central part of my recollection.

 

When I first met Mel in New Hampshire, I was the new kid. I had just moved there from Michigan during my freshman year. But this was the fourth time in my young life as the new kid. I had good survival instincts. I needed a friend to be back-to-back with me, fighting off the violent hordes like in Robotron. My alliance with him, our similar sense of humor, and our relentless sarcasm were what mattered to me. Mel was the only black guy in my class. He was adopted by a white family when he was small. When we were freshmen, I think there was one other African-American student in the whole high school of 500 kids. I never even met a black person until four years before I met Mel. My dad invited a young man to eat supper with my family in Michigan when I was in about 7th grade. I lived most of my life in a bubble.

Now I’ll say something fraught: I didn’t see Mel’s race. I remember our circle of friends going to movies and parties, playing sports, and trying to pick up girls. Yes, my memory is flawed and I probably wasn’t paying attention. But I don’t remember race coming up until the day I heard Roy say that word. And Mel doesn’t even remember him saying it.

I saw good grades and good athletic performance as a way to earn chips. I would get a pile of good behavior chips and then spend them on bad behavior. Underage drinking. Mean-spiritedness. I thought I was smarter than everybody else. I mocked everyone. I tried to smother my inferiority complex with outward aggression. Whether he realized it or not, I thought Mel was my teammate in this.

Maybe Roy didn’t say the word. Maybe it just did not happen. Four years ago, when I asked Mel about it, he said he thought something was simmering between me and Roy. He said that it was a bunch of tough guy posturing and that I decided to cut to the chase. Mel may be right.

More memories bubbled up. There was a freshman football player who was bigger than me, but two years younger. He routinely gave me crap in the halls and in the locker room. I got sick of it. I was a junior. Freshmen couldn’t talk to me that way. It was the early 1980’s so lycra sports clothes were pretty new. I was running wearing lycra pants. I saw this kid walking up the street. I knew he was going to say something.

“Nice tights, you—”

I got in his face and told him I was going to beat the shit out of him if he ever spoke to me again. He never did. I learned that threats of violence work.

Another memory. I believe this one was also before the arcade punching incident. I was running with a dozen members of my cross-country team. We had a new guy on the team that just moved in from a neighboring town. He gave me a “flat tire” on purpose by stepping on the heel of my shoe, popping my foot all the way out. I spun around, saw the new guy laughing, and punched him as hard as I could in the stomach. He doubled over. I put my shoe back on and kept running with the team. He limped back to school alone. If I have the timeline right, threats worked and then violence worked. Maybe Mel was right. I was an insecure young man, prone to violence.

One thing Mel said gives me hope. He said that when I punched Roy, that it was the only time he ever saw anything like that from me. Maybe I wasn’t a creep after all. Then Mel said one more thing. He said that the incident always struck him as “slightly out of character.” Knocking a dude to the pavement was slightly off for me. But only slightly.

I read somewhere once that empathy is an act of imagination. What if I used my imagination to dig deep? “What if?” is a powerful question. Mel was my friend, probably the best one I had. The day I decided to fight, I disregarded my friend and went to start it alone. I didn’t care what he thought. He might as well have been a cardboard cutout of a young black man. Maybe, just for a second, 35 years later, I can try to imagine what that day felt like to Mel.

Let’s make two assumptions. First, let’s say that the story happened exactly the way I remember it. Second, let’s say I switch with Mel. I went to look at my high school yearbook. I looked at all the teachers and administrators. Our little school even had pictures of the groundskeepers and lunch ladies. There were no black people. I looked at every picture of all four classes. No black students. During my senior year, Mel had gone to private school across the river, so his picture wasn’t in my yearbook. So, let’s reverse roles with Mel. Let’s picture me as the only white student in a scenario where everyone in my family and at my school is black.

I tried to imagine walking out of the video arcade and Roy calling me a name because I was white. Then Mel asking me if I was going to put up with it. If I really did hear that kind of thing all the time, what would I do? Go in with Mel and start a brawl? I realized that kind of response was unsustainable. What would I do? Wear boxing gloves 24 hours a day? Constantly throw punches? There would have to be a different, smarter way forward. For the first time, decades later, maybe I had a tiny glimpse into why Mel went and sat in the LeCar. He saw wisdom in just going to get a sandwich. I was an angry teen who thought the world was a game of Robotron: Save your family and kill everything you see. It was a one-time thing for me. It was an “all the time” proposition for Mel.

Mel has a PhD and does scientific research directing his own laboratory at a university. We still talk and even have a beer together once in a great while. I trust his memory. According to social media, Roy is an artist and a professor at a university. He doesn’t seem like a guy who would’ve said that all those years ago.

 

Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The man I pretend to be is partly based on the story about punching Roy. At the time I told myself I was doing the right thing. But I had an understanding of violence and morality that was no better than the blinking lights of a video game. Now, I find it impossible to prove that my creation myth is true. In the words of the Konnikova quote, I’ve learned that my confidence in what happened is misplaced.

I wasn’t just overconfident about the event. I ignored what my best friend thought and went back into the arcade. I just now tried to crawl into Mel’s skin. The truth of Mel’s life is impossible for me to know. The truth of anybody else’s life is unknowable, but I think it’s important to try. Not seeing race as a dumb kid is one thing. Pretending race doesn’t exist as an adult would mean I’m still a child.

I asked my dad and he remembered only one thing from my day outside the arcade. He said I had just gotten my high school ring. He said I chipped the stone in the ring when I punched Roy. I laughed and shook my head. I wore that ring for several years after high school. I definitely remembered the damaged stone, but I didn’t remember how it happened. I had no idea.

I have another lasting memory from shortly after the punching. I’m walking down the hallway of my high school, people whispering as I pass. The boy-turned-man who beats people up. Maybe the whispering was imagined. But I stood taller. Proud because I could justify my recent violence. And my future violence.

Tim O’Brien wrote a book called The Things They Carried. In a chapter titled, “How to Tell a True War Story” he says this:

 

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer. 

 

I keep asking the question about that day, so the answer must matter. And I guess I’ve got my answer: I have no idea.