Bad Games
Author:Jeff Menapace

Bad Games - By Jeff Menapace


1



Early autumn, 2008



Patrick was fairly certain the white Pontiac was following them. Nothing to be too alarmed about on a country road with few detours, but still, he had that feeling.

When the Pontiac passed his silver Highlander at the first sign of a dotted lane, Patrick looked left. The driver looked back—longer than necessary.

Asshole.

And yet, a few miles later, it was the same white Pontiac that made Patrick stop for gas. Had the car not been parked next to one of the pumps at the battered station, Patrick would have driven past without even tapping the breaks. The place looked barren.

Will there be a confrontation with this guy if I stop?

Nah. There were no horns honked. No middle fingers given. Not even a tough-guy scowl during the long glance. The man simply passed him on a country road—and Patrick had been driving slowly. Alone, his right foot was usually a lead boot on the accelerator, but with his family in the car, Patrick was an old man behind the wheel. Besides, they needed gas. Who knew when they’d come upon another station out here?

He turned in and took the only other pump in front of the Pontiac. The metal tank was a beaten rectangle. It offered two grades: REGUL R and PR MIUM—vowels, Patrick mused, apparently being the preferred meal of the elements around here. He chose PR MIUM and began filling the Highlander.

And that was when he first met the man with the white Pontiac.

“A Penn State man huh?”

Patrick looked over his shoulder. The man sat smiling on the hood of his car, the pump’s black hose winding out of the Pontiac’s tank like a stubborn snake latched to a meal beyond its means. The man had apparently flipped the metal latch beneath the handle to keep the pump running hands-free. Patrick fingered the latch on his own handle, wondering why he hadn’t thought to do the same himself. He carried on squeezing anyway.

“Excuse me?” Patrick said.

“Your license plate,” the man pointed.

The Pennsylvania plates on the Highlander read that the owner was an alumnus of Penn State. Patrick often forgot he had them. “Oh,” he finally said with an even smile. “Yeah—class of ’92. You go there?”

The man pushed off his hood and stood upright. Patrick guessed him at just under six feet with a slender but sturdy build. His pallid complexion was in contrast to the charcoal eyes that were fixed beneath a full head of black, messy hair—the result of little sleep and no comb, or perhaps the latest fashion trend. Likely, a mussed, unkempt look was the latest style; Patrick wouldn’t have had a clue. At thirty-eight and with a family, he was admittedly as up to date on fashion trends as he was on who Paris Hilton was currently dating.

“Sure did—class of ’98,” the man said. “I guess that would put about six years between us, yeah? No chance of ever crossing paths.”

Patrick gave a nod and added, “Well with the size of Penn State, we could have graduated the same year and still never met.”

The man laughed. “Very true.”

Yes—his initial assumption had been correct; there was no confrontation here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet it still didn’t deter Patrick from willing the inevitable click from either of their pumps to come sooner than later. Small talk was a hemorrhoid to him.

Patrick looked through the rear-side window of his SUV and made eye contact with his wife, Amy. She gave a quick flick of the head towards the stranger, the curious frown on her face asking who and what. Patrick replied with a subtle roll of his eyes. Amy returned a sympathetic roll of her own, blew him a kiss, and then turned her attention back to their two children in the backseat.

“So do you still visit from time to time?” the man asked.

Patrick shook his head. “Not really. I used to try and make a football game every once in a while, but with a family now, it’s kind of tough.”

The man pecked forward and looked through the rear window of the Highlander. Amy could be seen leaning over the front seat, entertaining the two kids. She looked up and caught the man’s eye. He stared back, holding his gaze.

If it were a game of chicken, Amy would have lost. She was first to look away, quickly bringing her head back down towards the children as if caught staring at something taboo.

Seconds later, she glanced up again. The man’s eyes hadn’t shifted; he was still staring at her, his expression calm and curious, like a man entertaining a riddle. “Huh,” he said softly.

The man brought his attention back to Patrick, started smiling again. “Well, I can sympathize with you on that one, my friend.” He pointed a finger over his shoulder. “I’ve got two of my own.”

Patrick leaned his torso away from the car and looked through the windshield of the man’s Pontiac. He squinted through glass and glare to see two child seats in back, each one occupied by a dark, fuzzy little head sticking out of a blanket.

Patrick smiled. “How old?”

“One and one,” the man smirked, his expression one of blatant delight for the riddle to tantalize before hitting home.

Patrick got it immediately, but accommodated him anyway. “Twins?”

The man all but giggled. “Yup.”

“Whoa.”

The man was beaming now. “That’s what I said when I found out. Hit the lottery my wife likes to kid. Hasn’t been too bad though really; they’re good boys. What about you?”

“One boy, one girl,” Patrick said. “Four and six.”

The man said, “Nice.”

Patrick felt it was now his dutiful turn to initiate some sort of generic inquiry before one of the blessed clicks. “So I take it you haven’t made any recent visits to our alma matter then either?”

The man shook his head, a saddened dip on the corner of his mouth. “Nope. Could have made a detour and stopped for a quick visit on the way up here, but the wife was having none of it. Broke my heart.” He breathed in deep as though reliving a tragic event. And then, switchblade-quick, the smile was back. “Still, my wife’s family has a nice little cabin out here in the boonies. She thought it’d be a nice overdue getaway for the four of us. Shake off city life for a little while I guess. She’s there now with her folks, waiting for me and the kids.”

“You’re kidding,” Patrick said. “Where are you staying?”

“Middle of Nowhere, PA,” he joked. “Why?”

“Weird coincidence, that’s all. My family and I are pretty much doing that same exact thing. Made the trek all the way from the ’burbs of Philadelphia. My wife’s family even owns a cabin out here as well. Crescent Lake. You ever heard of it?”

The man’s handle clicked and the chipped-paint numbers on the old tank rolled to a stop. He turned and headed to the rear of his car, talking over his shoulder as he worked. “No, can’t say I have.” He lifted the handle from its hole and locked it home on the tank. “We’re from Philadelphia too—city, not ’burbs—so I’m pretty darn clueless around here.” Screwed the cap back on, and closed the hole’s lid. “In fact, to tell you the truth,” he headed back to his spot in front of his car, “I get more creeped out around places like this—way out in the country—than I would on a wrong turn in North Philly late at night.”

Patrick chuckled. “I know what you mean. Our cabin is in a small community surrounding the lake I mentioned. It’s nice and cozy, but it’s out there—lets your imagination get the best of you sometimes. Guess I’ve seen Deliverance one too many times yeah?”

The man smiled. “Good movie.”

Patrick nodded. “Good but disturbing.”

“Disturbing how?”

Patrick’s chin retracted. “You serious?”

The man said nothing, just waited for elaboration.

“That scene,” Patrick said. “That one scene? The one with Ned Beatty?”

“Oh right,” the man said. “Didn’t like it, huh?”

Patrick’s chin retracted again. “Did you?”

“Thought it was funny.”

“You got a sick sense of humor, man.” .

“You should meet my brother.”

Patrick smiled. “I think I’ll pass.”

The man put a hand over his heart and made a face is if wounded. “Ouch.”

Patrick quickly said, “Oh I didn’t mean any offense by it, man. It’s just that most people—guys especially—found that scene in the film pretty disturbing. Did for camping what Jaws did for swimming if you ask me.”

The man chuckled and stepped forward with his hand extended. “Well put. And no more of this ‘man’ stuff—call me Arty.”

Patrick’s handle clicked. He replaced it on the tank before taking the man’s hand. “Patrick.”

“That’s a heck of a grip you got there, Patrick. Did you play football for Penn State?”

In clothes, Patrick looked like a powerful man at six-three and well over two hundred pounds. However, the lines of definition that had sculpted his body in his youth had been systematically erased over the years thanks to children, work, and Krispy Kreme donuts. His once treasured six-pack stomach was now a smooth one-pack, but the bulk on his wide frame was still there, and modestly maintained by the occasional weight session in their furnished basement back home.

“No, no, I played in high school,” he said. “I could have never made the roster at Penn State.”

“I see,” Arty replied. “Well at least you’re honest. No Al Bundy delusions of grandeur for you, yeah? Wondering what could have been if you weren’t Married with Children?”

Patrick got the joke (a fan of the show, he actually found it amusing) and fed the man’s wit. “Oh no—my wife makes an excellent Peg Bundy. Keeps me nice and humble.”

Arty laughed loud then asked, “So…what’s your damage?”

Patrick hesitated.

“Gas,” Arty said, pointing at Patrick’s pump. “What’s your damage?”

“Oh...” He read the meter. “A hell of a lot. In a million years I never thought I’d own one of these things. But it’s pretty convenient when you’ve got kids, and—”

“Well I’ll tell you what, Patrick,” Arty interrupted, “any alumnus of Penn State is a friend of mine. This round’s on me.” He pulled a wad of bills from his front pocket and began heading towards the cashier in the glass booth.

“No,” Patrick said, “I can’t let you do that. Arty, please.”

But the man was already en route. He simply waved a hand behind him as though shooing away a dog.

Arty returned a few minutes later, shaking his head and pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “That guy was a winner,” he said. “Could smell him through the glass.”

Patrick dug for the right words. “Hey, man, that was really generous of you. I don’t know what to…thank you very much.”

Arty smiled. “Please, don’t give it a second thought. I like to think that if we show kindness to others often enough it’ll become contagious.” He folded his arms. “Some people say environment makes us who we are. So, I guess it’s up to us to change that environment, make our world a friendlier place to live in.”

Patrick raised an eyebrow; he couldn’t help it.

Arty broke out laughing. “I sound like a goddamn politician, don’t I?”

Patrick shook his head. “No, no, it just took me off guard, that’s all. I uh…I was just…yeah, you did kinda sound like a politician.”

Arty laughed again.

Patrick smiled. “But it’s nice to have someone be generous just for the sake of it.”

“Well it was my pleasure.” Arty reached out and patted Patrick twice on his upper arm, squeezing its girth hard on the final pat. It was an odd gesture that almost had Patrick yanking his arm free. The move seemed primitive—like he was being sized up.

As if reading Patrick’s mind, Arty placed both hands behind his back and started rocking on his heels. His aura had hardly dipped though; it was brighter even. He just grinned and said, “Have fun at Crater Lake.”

“Crescent Lake,” Patrick said, rubbing his arm, claiming it back.

“Right, Crescent Lake,” Arty said. “Hope it’s relaxing for ya.”

“Same to you.”

Patrick watched the man get into his Pontiac, then lean over his driver’s seat to check his kids. When Arty faced front again he spotted Patrick watching him through his windshield. He waved before backing up.

Patrick waved back, nodded and smiled a goodbye.

Amy spoke the second Patrick was back in the Highlander. “Who was that?”

“Some guy named Arty. He went to Penn State.”

“You knew him?”

“No. But he saw our license plate and we just started talking. He was an okay guy. A little odd. Believe it or not he bought our gas.”

“What?”

“I know, can you believe it?”

“Why did you let him do that?”

Patrick started the engine. “He didn’t really give me a chance to argue. He was halfway towards the attendant before I could object.”

“That’s bizarre. I wonder what he wanted.”

“That was my first impression too. I thought he was a salesmen or something— buttering us up before giving us his big pitch.” He put on his seatbelt. “But the guy had his kids in the car with him, and they were heading west to meet his wife and family so…”

“Weird.”

“Yeah,” he paused, trying to figure it all out himself. “I guess he’s just one of those guys who’s desperate to be liked. You know, started buying people’s affection as a last resort?”

“He was weird.”

Patrick shrugged. “Okay fine, he was weird. But at the end of the day he did save us some money.”

Free gas, even for a guzzler like theirs, did not seem to deter Amy’s pessimism. “That’s strange, Patrick. People don’t just do that.”

He sighed, exasperated. “I know Amy, but it’s already done. What do you want me to do about it?”

She said nothing.

“Okay then, maybe the guy’s just got a little dick and he’s compensating by flashing around wads of cash.”

Amy slapped his leg and Patrick jumped. Carrie, their six-year-old, leaned forward after witnessing her mother’s reprimand of her father. “What did Daddy say?” she asked.

“Nothing. Daddy’s just being a dummy.”

Carrie giggled and flopped back into her seat.

“That’s nice, honey. Give our children a nice heaping bowl of respect for their father.”

“Yes, well if their father would watch his mouth around his children—”

Patrick grabbed his wife’s thigh and she screeched. A rapid-fire assault of noisy smooches followed. Amy squirmed away from her husband’s probing lips, her laughter rising into playful screams. “Stop! Stop!”

One final obnoxious kiss and Patrick returned upright into his seat, more than a little pleased with himself. Amy laughed, straightened herself up, slapped her husband on the shoulder, then laughed again. Patrick turned to his kids in the backseat and flashed a silly grin. They grinned back, each one seemingly revolted yet delightfully entertained at their parents’ public display of affection.

Patrick faced front again. “Okay, we’re off.”



* * *



Arty pulled his white Pontiac to the side of an isolated road not far from the station. He got out and opened one of the back doors.

“Come on, boys,” he said, reaching in and snatching the blankets off his twin sons. He grabbed the children each by a leg and dragged them out of their car seats. Walking off the gravel road, Arty headed up a small hill towards a stretch of woods about twenty yards from where he’d parked. The boys dangled by their ankles in his grip.

Arriving at the most condensed border of the wooded area, he held the boy in his right hand up to his mouth, kissed him softly on the bottom, and punted the child deep into the woods.

The second boy got the same treatment, landing further back into the mass of green and brown than his brother. Arty raised both hands in the air like a referee confirming a touchdown.

“Take care, boys,” he said to the two plastic dolls he had just booted. And then, softly, smiling, “You served your daddy well.”

Arty strolled back to the Pontiac. He opened the driver’s door but did not enter right away. He stood there, eyes closed, breathing in one deep breath of autumn air until his chest could hold no more. He exhaled slowly, feeling the tingle radiate throughout his entire body.

“Fuck yeah,” he breathed.

The start of a new one. The exquisite foreplay. So good.

Arty settled into the driver’s seat. Gunning the engine, he cranked the wheel hard to the left, gravel spitting out from beneath the tires as the car fishtailed before righting itself. Before too long he was back on the main road heading west. He smirked and occasionally giggled the entire drive.