Southern Legitimacy Statement: For my prior publications in The Mule, I have written of my semi-fictional relatives from the part of the world where I first saw the light of day — West Alabama. This time the setting of my story is my current home — the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Pachinko in the Afterlife
I had been conducting a sort of passive search for my father for two decades, ever since he abandoned us. Each year I checked the local phone books, but the old man apparently had an unlisted number. There is no sense in Googling someone of that generation, but still I did. One day I was installing fiber optic cable at the central desk of a place called Shady Acres Retirement Community when I happened to peruse the names of all the senior citizens living there. I saw the name AC “Junior” Parker. Even though I saw his room number, I could not bring myself to so much as walk past his room, much less drop in to see him. Over the one week that I worked there, I ran all sorts of scenarios through my mind that might bring me within his line of sight. That way, if he recognized me, then the ball would be in his court. “Son?” he might say, as he watched me run cable in the ceiling above his room. But every scenario I came up with seemed ridiculous.
Then I found out about the buses that ferried the residents from the retirement home to the casinos in Biloxi. The buses might provide the perfect opportunity to catch a glimpse of him — to verify that it was my long, lost father — without making a fool of myself. After all, even though I had not seen the man since the early 90s, I still knew enough about him to know that he would find a free ride to the casino irresistible.
One morning I conducted a stakeout from my SUV in the parking lot of Silver Bay Casino. The casino had just bussed in a load of retirees from Shady Acres and other nursing homes, like they did every morning. The antithesis of Bellagio or any of the other sexy Las Vegas casinos, it was located behind low rent neighborhoods next to the seafood and light industrial district, off the beaten path as if to hide the leathery, sallow faces of its seasoned clientele, to suck in the last of their disability checks or social security checks before time ran out, out of sight of a complicit society.
I had been watching the elderly as they made their way off the buses with the help of a hydraulic lift. Virtually all of them had personal motorized wheelchairs. Invariably they congregated in groups on the sidewalk, circling like little wagon trains waiting for their full number to exit the bus. Then they took off in packs, one behind the other, an armada presumably not satisfied by bingo.
They crossed the street not 30 feet in front of me, giving me a perfect opportunity to study them each carefully to see if I could spot Dad. They bore accessories, such as oxygen tanks and pincer-like grabbers on sticks. Some had seemed to take pride in customizing their vehicles with buttons or bumper stickers or flags. One had a television and another had a boom box. I wondered if I would even be able to recognize my old man at all in this altered condition.
The final bus unloaded a group of four men who huddled on the sidewalk, just like their predecessors, their hover rounds facing one another. They were a rowdy bunch. They sprang into motion with the lurch of electric bumper cars at the fair and left the sidewalk in single file. Rather than use the cross walk, they made a bee line towards the entrance of the casino on the other side of the street. Their taking the long arm of the triangle, as it were, made it take much longer for them to cross the street than if they had just used the cross walk. Usually that’s a pet peeve of mine, but this time it gave me a chance to study them more carefully. I recognized none of the four. Suddenly a scooter bringing up the rear shot into my view. I don’t know where he came from, but he had it in high gear, obviously trying to catch up with the others. As soon as his transformed, non-ambulatory form entered my peripheral view, I knew instantly it was him.
I had the silly notion of trying to tell myself that I couldn’t get too excited, that he needed to get closer for a positive identification. But whatever quality the mind uses to imprint people from our formative years, it is indelible. For when the old man rolled his closest to me, it was obvious just how much his physical appearance had changed. He looked like all the others who rolled by in pieces, a fulfillment of clichés about the old. Shadows of their former bodies. Ears and noses proportionally larger than their faces. Giant torsos with a rim of fat about their middle with spindly appendage legs, if they still had legs at all. He had become a bad caricature of his younger body. Still I knew that without a doubt that it was him.
He must have called out to them, because they all stopped and waited — in the middle of the street — for him to catch up. He sped forward and joined them.
When I had always imagined our reunion, I saw him from afar, enveloped in a permanent shroud of melancholy, his demeanor reflecting some deep sorrow of a life thrown away. “How could I desert my family?” he might ask himself continually. My role in the imagined reunion would be to lift that cloud from his being at the first opportunity, to prove that I had become a man without him. My graciousness would bring him to his knees. Yes, at the first sign of his remorse I would offer my forgiveness.
But now, through the windshield, I saw him! He had materialized before me for the first time since 1993. And he was cheerful! Giddy even, as he caught up with his pals. He was bounding along without a care in the world. I had an impulse to accelerate forward and run them all over. I briefly imagined the explosions when their ruptured oxygen tanks ignited from the cigarettes they smoked. I would see a giant fireball in my rear view mirror as I left the scene. But I knew the explosions would wake my two year old son, Aiden, who slept in his car seat in the back.
I lowered my windows and listened as they playfully ribbed him about being late. Then they all went in together. As a whole there was something impressive about the group. There was some solidarity, some brotherhood, as they rolled by, as if they were shift workers on the way to some factory despite their obvious infirmities. I think it was the fact that they still had an appetite for any vice at all. No, Dear Ole Dad had no hint of permanent loss in his demeanor.
As the men rolled through the door, a casino attendant, who obviously was well acquainted with them, held the door for them, grinning. A 60ish year old lady with a rhinestone studded denim jacket and matching mini skirt exited as my father and the senior in front of him waited to enter. The men looked at one another, each having noticed the lady. Dad pushed up with his arms on his chair rails, lifted himself from the seat and feigned pelvic thrusts as she passed by. Both men got a good laugh. That’s the last earthly image I saw of him.
I slammed the SUV into gear and left Silver Bay Casino forever.
For a moment I despised myself. I suppose I had brought Aiden along and drove my wife’s 2006 Tahoe rather than my old Grand Prix to show the old man just how well I had turned out. “See Dad. I have sired a son — your grandson! His middle name is Christopher after you!” In that moment I had the full realization of how pathetic I was, the whole situation was. I was after all, hoping for some chance reunion in a casino parking lot with a father who had moved on with his life years ago.
One of the last things I remember him doing before he left us in Pascagoula was lobbying hard to bring the casinos to the area. He had never cared too much about anything remotely civic in nature (and some sort of civic project is how those casinos were initially represented to us all — they were supposed to bring jobs to the area and much needed funding to our beleaguered schools). All of a sudden he was going to the Board of Aldermen meetings and writing to State Senators. I truly think that is the reason he left us in Jackson County when the neighboring county legalized gambling. To be closer to the damn casinos.
Four weeks after Silver Bay, I read his obituary in the newspaper. I had been writing him a long letter with the intention, not of grace and forgiveness, but to set the record straight once and for all. To let him know how hard it was growing up, to blame him for my not going to college. But, as a real blow, to let him know I had turned out ok without him. His obit did not evoke sorrow in me, but rather gave me a great sense of an opportunity missed. An opportunity to settle the score with him. I wanted to bring him back from the dead so I could kick his ass.
I obsessed on this opportunity missed the way well-adjusted people might obsess on not saying “I love you” one last time before an untimely passing of a loved one. It consumed me. It disrupted my life.
Then one day I decided to act. I decided to try to make contact with him from beyond the grave.
People have been conjured up from beyond the grave for ages. Now there are even television shows about it. The process is ancient and, from my perspective, simple. It’s been talked about since the earliest recorded history (see 1 Samuel from 3,000 years ago). You go to a soothsayer. In a sense it works like everything in America. You pay your money and you get the service. But the deceased don’t like to be interrupted (again see 1 Samuel, if you don’t believe me). It disturbs what they have going on in the other world.
There was a psychic place on Highway 90 in Ocean Springs. I always felt weird going there because I didn’t want people seeing my car and thinking I was going to the massage parlor next door. You read the type of service you wanted from a board that hung on a wall behind the counter, like a menu at a fast food restaurant. Tarot card reading. Aura cleansing. Love spell. Enemy spell. Fortune telling. Palm reading. Tea leaf reading, Ouija Board session, etc. The first time I went there, I looked the menu over and told the lady behind the counter I wanted a séance. She looked about as mystical as a bank teller. She proceeded in a business like fashion to hand me a clip board with a bunch of demographic and health questions, like the first time you go to a new doctor. I assumed she was some kind of receptionist, but to my surprise she was the proprietor and lead soothsayer, Glenda.
I paid Glenda $19.99 per session for a séance with my dad. Simple as that. Believe it or not, there is a very strict cosmic decorum that must be followed at all times when speaking with the deceased in a séance. The most important rules are the following.
1) No other transcendent beings can be in the background when the primary figure is being contacted, to protect their privacy (I learned from Glenda that in the early 90s, the term “transcendent beings” replaced the term “ghosts”, when political correctness swept the country).
2) No rude or offensive language to the transcendent beings.
3) No being can be forced to stay longer than 15 minutes in any session.
4) There can be only one session per week, unless invited by the being to make contact more frequently. It’s purely up to the discretion of the being.
5) The beings promise not to slip into our world uninvited, though there seems no clear reason why any of them would ever do this (in fact there are no documented unprovoked hauntings: only desperate beings who have been harassed by humans — the beings see it as a way to make the haunted leave them alone).
If you have ever had a séance, you know that the picture quality is not the best. Think of the image as a combination of the smoke and fire from the wizard in the Wizard of Oz and the hologram of Princess Leia that was projected to Obi Wan Kenobi by R2D2. It comes in and out and leaves a lot to be desired. Glenda even sold me some special glasses to enhance the experience. The sound quality is like an old, single speaker transistor radio. Solar flares and other metrological phenomena interfere with the picture quality greatly as well.
Our first session was a happy one. I wasn’t really too nervous, because I didn’t believe it was going to work. Glenda sat me on a bench in a dark room that seemed to be completely lined with dark, felt-like carpet — the walls and ceiling included. She directed my attention to a rectangular recess in the wall, about the size of a 55 inch flat screen TV. She told me that I would be reunited with Junior Parker in a few moments.
She was right. Something like a hologram appeared in the recess, and my old man appeared to be squinting, as if his eyes were adjusting to the light. At first he seemed confused, like he wasn’t sure what was going on. “Dad?” I said.
“Travis, is that you?” he responded, as his face seemed to light up a little. A tear came to my eye. I hoped he couldn’t see it in the darkness. I was later reassured by Glenda that for them it is a little like being in a police lineup — they can’t see out very clearly.
We exchanged pleasantries and caught up a little, the way anyone would after all the years. I felt no anger towards him whatsoever. Our conversation quickly turned to my asking him questions about what it was like up there.
“Dad, are you in heaven?” I asked. He laughed a bemused sort of way and didn’t answer immediately. “I mean I know you are in heaven,” I continued. I wasn’t suggesting you were in…” before I could salvage myself he began to explain things to me.
“Up here it’s like whatever you really like gets really dialed in for you. Up here. I should really say ‘over here’ to be more technically correct.”
I dodged any really serious stuff that first encounter. He spoke in general terms about the afterlife. I gave him a general overview of my life. I told him about Donna, my wife. I told him about his grandson, Aiden Christopher Parker. That made him smile. I finished that first session by telling him that I was taking some night classes at Tulane University. In the moment those words left my mouth, I waited with great anticipation for his approval at my attending such a recognizable institution, as if he would go and brag to the other transcendent beings that he had a kid back on earth in college at Tulane. Before I could gage his reaction, simultaneously the lights came on and his image disappeared. I heard Glenda’s voice right behind me announcing “Time’s up! That’s 15 minutes.”
I was a little let down that the whole thing ended so quickly. I couldn’t wait for the following week, when we could speak again. When the session rolled around, I continued with my general line of questions about things in the afterlife, but I was really hoping that he would offer something up in the way of some explanation of his behavior on earth.
“Are there good people there with you?” (asking him about God seemed too personal).
“There are no virtuous people; just appetites,” he replied. “Everyone here understands that and doesn’t spend too much time figuring stuff out. Earthly acts of kindness and sublimation are just misappropriated appetite.”
Later I had to go back and look up some of his words in the dictionary. I tried to impress him with my words as well. I had had a surge in my confidence for such things since I began taking night classes.
Still, his answer seemed evasive. I changed tactics. “Is Abe Lincoln there with you?” I asked.
“Funny you ask. I saw him at breakfast one morning this week. Yes, Abe is a stand-up guy.”
“Wait. What? You saw him at breakfast? You have to eat?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Well, yes, but it’s just that you are a transcendent being and all…I didn’t think you would get hungry in the afterlife. What do you eat?”
“Mostly Slim Jims and sweet-heat pork skins. I chase them with cookie dough ice cream. It’s my favorite. And I never gain weight or have to have my cholesterol checked either.” I silently begged to differ. I had made out his profile several times when the hologram turned just right, and I thought his pot belly was rather impressive.
“What did you and Abe Lincoln talk about over breakfast?” I asked.
“You know. Small talk mostly. He’s rather laconic (I looked it up later). Plus he has to concentrate while he eats because of his bad teeth, you know.”
That’s when I had the first inkling that my old man may be bullshitting me from the great beyond. I think he was confusing Abe Lincoln and George Washington.
“Do you have any special powers?” I asked him.
“I suppose we have what you might call ‘special powers’,” he said with what seemed an air of superiority.
“What can you do?” I asked.
“I can dream up stuff in my mind and it will materialize. Within reason that is.”
I was astounded at this revelation. I instantly imagined all the things I would dream up for myself. A classic Chris Craft wooden runabout. A Harley Davidson. A Corvette Stingray. I had to work to contain my excitement.
“What have you dreamed up lately?” I blurted out.
He paused, as if he were considering whether or not to answer me. “A pachinko machine,” he replied.
“What is pachinko?” I asked.
“It’s a game that originated in Japan,” he answered, again his answer seemed as if he were unwilling to elaborate, as if he were hiding something. “Honest Abe really likes it too,” he added, as if this reference gave him cred in both the afterlife and on the big blue marble.
“Can you tell the future?” I continued.
“Ah, the future,” he said as he nodded his head, smirking as if I had just uttered the most naïve thing imaginable. “It’s only in a continuum like yours that the idea of past, and present, and future exist. Here we are. Are. We are in the glorious present of our own design. Our own creation.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain by way of analogy. It’s like when you finish your degree at the Edgewater Mall…” He referred to the building where I took the Tulane University night classes. Wait a minute, I thought. Was that a swipe at the legitimacy of my future degree?
“You are moving towards getting a degree. You hope to improve your life in some way by working towards something. We are already there. We have exactly what we want all the time.” Well, excuse me, Mr. Transcendent Being, I thought.
“So, it’s like Groundhog Day — the same thing over and over all the time?” I fired back. It was the first time I had intentionally brought some tension to the conversation.
“Of course not! There is as much variety as you want!”
“You just told me you eat Slim Jims all day!” I replied.
“I do! But it’s my choice. I choose to because I love them! It’s just we TBs have figured it out a long time ago. What makes us happy. What scratches the itch…” I wasn’t buying it.
“Do any of your TB friends kayak or fly fish?” I asked.
“None that run in my circles. But there are a lot that do. There are some that play golf all day. Your old little league coach, Mr. Frierson, he rides around in a golf cart all day and goes from course to course.” I was touched that he remembered something from my life from all those years ago. I relented. The tension had altogether subsided when the session abruptly ended.
Glenda was making an effort to give me a stern look when I exited the séance room. “Don’t push your luck,” she said. “We’re serious when we say you can’t offend them. I run this place by the rules.” I felt accused of some minor infraction, like a kid who missed his curfew by a few minutes.
The next week I continued to ask Dad questions about the afterlife, his special powers, etc. “What do you know about people on earth? Can you look down and see us?”
“Hmmm. See us,” he stated philosophically, as if he were giving my question great consideration. “It’s more that we perceive humans in the form of orbs of light. The cumulative force of their being is reflected in the intensity of their orb.” That sounded believable.
“So the more successful a person is, the brighter his light?” I asked, trying to make sure I understood the concept.
“Successful…I suppose for lack of a better term one might say ‘the more successful’,” he stated after careful deliberation.
“So like Bill Clinton’s orb is really bright, but less bright than when he was president?”
“No. Again, we transcendent beings are beings in touch with the way things are. Bill Clinton’s orb was the same intensity since the time he came into the world. It’s a summation of everything the guy ever did, is doing, and will do in the future.”
“So is Clinton brighter than Ronald Reagan?” I inquired, thinking the comparison quite clever.
“No. You don’t get it. Ronny is here with us now too. He no longer has an orb at all. He is a…”
“Transcendent being,” I finished his sentence. “So what about OJ Simpson, a guy who started out really strong and then is finishing poorly?” I asked.
“OJ Simpson is below Mercury Morris, if that tells you anything,” Dad replied.
“That is bad,” I replied.
This game was fun. I kept on asking to compare different people’s orbs.
“Jeff Gordon or Richard Petty?” I asked, remembering the old man’s fondness for NASCAR.
“Richard Petty, of course.”
“Mohammed Ali or Mike Tyson.”
“Mohammed Ali’s is one of the ten brightest orbs ever.”
“Who are the others?”
Dad sighed as if my questions were exhausting him. “Okay, okay. I won’t ask about any more people for now,” I said. Then I got my courage up. “What about my orb?” I asked.
He looked surprised. “Your orb? Your orb is really bright! I’m impressed,” he said. “I must have done something right,” he said jokingly.
I was really proud to hear him talk about my orb that way. Sadly this was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was the highpoint of our time together. The session again ended too soon, it seemed.
I spent the next week preparing a list of things to ask him. I paid Glenda an extra fee and she worked it out that the sessions would be Skyped to my home PC. It was much easier for me that way. No more sitting in that dark velvet room or worrying that people would think I was going to the massage parlor next door.
The next session was decidedly different than the previous three. Dad seemed distracted. At times bored even. I no longer had his undivided attention. He had his back to the screen and played pachinko throughout our conversation. Rather than jump right into the questions, I waited a moment to see if he would engage me. Ask how the family was doing or something. He did not. He sat there firing metal balls into the machine. “That’s an old mechanical kind, huh?” I feigned interest in his hobby, which I had researched online.
“Huh? Oh yeah, I like the classic kind,” he replied slowly as he fed more balls into the machine, scarcely turning his head. I tried a couple more times to get him interested, but he was just so preoccupied with the pachinko. Then I turned the topic to something I knew he couldn’t resist. Hurricanes.
He was from old Biloxi. If there were any non-ephemeral insights that left this world with him, it would be his prideful opinions about the peculiar things — the weather, the barrier islands, the harvesting of various seafood — that affect the Mississippi Coast. It was his heritage. His father was a shrimper and oyster man from The Point in Biloxi. He often recited a story of his old man cleaning his hands every day with a concoction in the carport before he entered the house. The concoction contained, among other things, lemon juice. The purpose of the concoction was twofold: to clean his hands and to rid them from a skin disease that afflicts oyster and seafood handlers. He told me of how the concrete floor around the basin where his father washed his hands was pitted from the drippings. “Can you imagine what it was doing to him on the inside if it was doing that to the floor?” he stated every time he retold the story. Like many people from Biloxi, he marked time in epochs divided by hurricanes. Thus there was a time before Camille, and after. He told me of a vinyl record that he saw driven through the top of a telephone pole like a saw blade by the winds of Camille. He spoke of the area as a veritable Garden of Eden before that storm, and forever changed thereafter. I had never had the chance to ask him about Katrina, which he lived through as well.
“Dad, now that you have the added insight of being a transcendent being, which hurricane was worse, Camille or Katrina?” I asked. It worked. He stopped feeding the machine. He turned and looked right at me.
“If Camille would’a hit in 2005, it would have made Katrina look like a pussycat. The reason Katrina was so bad was because everything was made so shoddy.” He had always had a thing for Camille. To him, Camille was the all-time weather bad ass. I could sense his old prejudices coming out, even across dimensions. He talked about the ferocity of the storm with a certainty. He talked about it the way I’ve heard some old men talk about Joe Lewis, like some old time heavyweight champ, that he had the privilege to see for himself and about which he had the obligation to tell upcoming generations. I doubted he was using any supernatural insight to form his opinion. Then just as quickly as he had been energized to talk with me, he turned away, back to his pachinko.
“Can you predict the weather?” I asked. “The strength of storms or where they will hit?”
“We are not allowed to meddle in human affairs that way.
“I can, however, predict and pass on to you certain meteorological phenomena that usually do not directly impact the affairs of man. Solar flares for instance. There will be a powerful solar flare next week. We will be unable to convene at our usual time. Perhaps the following week we can speak again.”
“Really?” I asked, unable to hide my disappointment.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied.
I felt like he was blowing me off.
In two weeks I checked back in, but our sessions continued to have the same pattern — me eager to make a connection with him and him playing pachinko the whole time, as if I were interfering with his life. Each week I came with new questions but I was really just beating around the bush, too afraid to ask him why he had abandoned us. He was aloof. Then one day I decided to lay it on the line.
“Dad, do you ever look down on us? Me, Kevin (my brother), Mom?” He stopped plinking the balls into the infernal machine for a moment.
“What do you think?” he replied. “I mean, it’s time for me to be away from all that suffering. If I look down, uh I mean over, it exposes me to all kinds of suffering. Bad things going on in people’s lives.
“Besides. Do you know what you people call those of us who are always looking into your world?”
“What?” I asked, anticipating something evasive.
“Ghosts! Technically, I would be haunting you if I looked into your world.”
“Dad, can I ask you something at the risk of you getting offended?”
“Go ahead. Ask me anything. Can’t promise I will answer it though.”
“Do you have any regrets? Or more precisely, ‘did you ever have any regrets?’ since you are living in the glorious present of your own creation and I suppose no longer capable of regrets, since that involves things from the past.”
“You’ve learned a lot, My Boy. What exactly are you driving at?”
“I could have reached my full potential sooner if you had been there to give me some guidance. I had gifts. Aptitudes. I could have been good at math.”
“Son, just because I am in the present does not mean that I cannot reason and am without affection.”
I just sat there waiting for him to say he was sorry or something. He surprised me though.
“Son, this is against all the rules. But I think I can help you make up for lost time. I’m going to give you a little knowledge of the future, which is to me the present.”
I was as intrigued as since we had first begun our sessions.
“Here’s a little something you can go and impress that math professor at the college with tonight,” he said.
Now I was really intrigued. Dad had found out just what made me tick, or “scratched my itch” as they might say in the afterworld. He was referring to Dr. Jeffries, or Mark as he insisted that I call him, I suppose because I was older than him. He was very different than the teachers I remember from high school who had had the life sucked out of them. He had an energy and sincerity about him. He seemed to like me. I respected him. He taught college algebra. The class was full of guys like me and single moms and other people who never had a chance to reach their full potential. All of us in the class really looked up to Mark. We saw the class as some chance at redemption, I suppose.
“It’s a mathematical formula. ‘E’ equals ‘MC’ squared,” he continued.
“Wait a second. I think we already have discovered that,” I stated indignantly, as if he were taking me for a fool.
“Oh, okay, wait, wait, I didn’t realize you guys had come up with it. Okay. This one you need to write down, because it is somewhat complex,” he said. I took out a pin from my lap desk drawer. “Ready?” he asked. I nodded my head.
“‘a’ squared plus ‘b’ squared equals ‘c’ squared.” I wrote as he spoke slowly with ample pauses, realizing I was carefully transcribing each word.
“What do the variables stand for?” I asked.
“They relate the lengths of the sides of a right triangle to one another. ‘C’ is the length of the longest leg of the triangle and ‘a’ and ‘b’ are the other two sides. Just show it to Dr. Jeffries. If you leave now, you can get to his office before class starts and talk it over. Maybe you two can get that publication in a journal you were hoping for.”
Although I didn’t completely understand it, I couldn’t wait to show Mark. “Thanks, Dad!” I blurted out. I knew the session had a couple minutes left but I stood up to leave.
“Don’t let me hold you up,” said Dad. “Oh, and I think there will be a big solar flare coming up and it will be made worse by the hole in the ozone layer, so we probably won’t be able to talk for a while…” I scarcely heard him as I exited the session two minutes early.
I sped down Highway 90 towards Edgewater Mall. When I crested the bridge spanning Biloxi Bay I beheld the magnificent sunset that bathed the world — the capricious waters of the Mississippi Sound, the pines and white sand of Deer Island, the unadulterated sky above me — in a pinkish orange glory. It was a beautiful omen. I was finally catching up with one swift turn of fortune! The old man was coming through for me from the afterworld, just like I had suspected he would after he got to know me again.
I knocked on Mark’s door during his office hours before class. “Come on in, Travis,” he stated as he motioned with his hand for me to sit in the chair across his desk.
“I came up with something that I wanted you to see before anyone else,” I said. He had a look on his face as if he could not imagine what I might be referring to, but suspected that it was something bad. I pulled out the paper upon which I had scratched the equation thirty minutes earlier, the markings fresh from the great beyond. I handed it to him and he studied it. A smile came upon his face instantly as he glanced at the paper and he looked back at me. “It relates the lengths of the sides of a right triangle to one another,” I said sincerely.
“It’s the Pythagorean Theorem,” he said, still smiling.
“It already has a name?” I asked. His expression changed completely. He must have seen me crestfallen.
“You mean you came up with this on your own?” he said sympathetically. “That’s really incredible. But you’re not the first to do it. It was derived in 500 BC or earlier by the Greeks.” I looked down so Mark could not see the tears welling in my eyes. “Man, that’s awesome that you derived this on your own. Don’t feel bad. You have a real aptitude for this stuff. We’re going to study this very theorem next block in geometry.” At some point his words became background noise. I sat there for a moment and then excused myself. “Good job, Trav’,” was the last thing I heard him say.
I drove back down Highway 90 as fast as I could, past the abandoned ruins of a never finished mega casino that marred the view of the water. I crossed back over the bridge to Ocean Springs and to Glenda’s. I had every intention of setting the record straight once and for all.
“Calm down,” Glenda immediately counseled me as I stormed into the establishment.
“I want to talk to him right now!”
“You know the rules. You just talked to him. Plus, I can’t let you go in there angry. This is a reputable establishment.”
I pulled $50 out of my wallet and flashed it in front of her. “Here. Make it happen.” I could tell she was considering it.
“Go to the Beau and put it all on red,” she said. “They’ll comp you a bourbon and Coke. Come back with $100 and calmed down, and we will see what we can do. And drive safely.”
I did just what she said. I came back 30 minutes later with $100.
“Glenda, why don’t you just use your powers to get rich at the casinos?” I asked her.
“I would if I could,” she stated with her hand out. “You had nearly a 50-50 chance,” she said as she accepted the payment.
“Are you sure you can get him, since it has been less than one week?”
“They have no sense of time,” Glenda replied. “For all he knows, we haven’t been there in more than a week. It’s strictly up to our world to abide by that rule.
“You got 10 minutes tops,” warned Glenda.
I entered the old, familiar black felt room, took my seat and stared at the recess in the wall. The room smelled of incense and mildew.
“Sorry to interrupt, Dad,” I stated as his image appeared just as he was collecting a payout on the pachinko machine.
“Hey, Partner,” he said in a surprised tone that suggested he never expected to see me again.
I glared back at him. “Thanks for telling me the Pythagorean Theorem, Dad.” He didn’t respond. “You left out the part about it being around since 500 BC. I guess it gets confusing when you are in a place where time is meaningless,” I said as sarcastically as possible.
“Yes, it does,” he replied. “If you don’t mind, I have to cash these in now,” he requested as he raked what looked like chips from the dispenser of the machine.
“Dad, have you ever considered that you are in hell?” I delivered the question as gravely as possible.
He stared right at me and paused from collecting the chips.
“Have you ever considered that you guys are trying as hard as you can to create the heaven we have here back on earth?” he responded.
“Go cash your chips in, you eunuch.” I had read that the pachinko parlors in Japan existed in a culture where gambling for money was forbidden. “You trade those things in like a kid at Showbiz. What are you going to get? You trading in your tokens for army men? Or have you been saving up for a Super Soaker? Or a knock-off Ipod?”
“Since you asked, I’ll be collecting treasury bills like these!” he stated as he held up what appeared to be a $100 US Treasury Bond, tilting it in the light so that I could make out the watermark, behind the profile of Thomas Jefferson, even across dimensions. “Backed by the full faith and strength of the US government,” he taunted. I thought back to the day I saw the army of seniors at Silver Bay Casino, with their hover rounds, and their oxygen tanks, and their pill counters, and their retirement community with shuttle buses. I had never imagined that they continued to bilk the government even in the afterlife.
“Dad, this has been a year with minimal solar flare activity — I spoke with my friend who works at Stennis Space Center and he says there won’t be any significant ones for months,” I said coldly.
“I’m not here to argue. Transcendent beings just don’t do it,” he replied smugly.
“I’m not here to argue either,” I said.
“Just like that lemon juice ate away at your dad, bit by bit every day, until it took him all away, so did the things you did every day eat away your soul, infinitesimally, day by day.” I had wanted to use this analogy on him for years. “Now all you can do is sit in front of one of those machines and feed tokens into it for all eternity. You became what you really wanted. Despite you, I became a man. I’m taking care of my family. I would never leave them the way you did us!”
“Oh! My son! The great philosopher who doesn’t even know the Pythagorean Theorem!” he said, keenly aware of all my weak spots.
“At least I take care of my family,” I continued.
“Your ‘family’? You mean that little orbless wonder, Aiden?”
“You don’t talk about my son that way!” I yelled at his image.
“He’s a black hole,” he continued.
“How could you talk about your own flesh and blood that way?” I replied.
“He’s not my flesh and blood any more than you are! How’s that for a little revelation from the great beyond? He’s not my grandson any more than you’re my son.”
I knew he was lying and I knew he didn’t deserve a reply. But I was shocked at his viciousness.
“Just go back to your pachinko. It’s all you’ll ever have,” I said.