“Stop it!! Mama, make him stop it.”
We were puttering down I-26 in Mrs. Ellison’s Datsun, my newly found second family and me. I didn’t quite understand why Matt’s mother let me tag along on their family vacation, but I wasn’t complaining. Free trip to Myrtle Beach? Forget about it.
Myrtle Beach was the vacation destination for Carolina families, and probably still is. The Beach had everything fun, loud, bright, and exciting. It was everything my family vacations weren’t. “Who the hell wants to spend two weeks sitting in the sand?” my father would say, usually before announcing a trip to the oldest grain silo in the original Colonies or some such. Matt’s invitation was my first opportunity to indulge in the great Southern ritual of the beach trip.
“Matt, that’s enough,” Mrs. Ellison said. His sister Terry seemed satisfied and all was peaceful for an hour until Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” came back around in the FM rotation. We all sang along until we got to the line, then Matt got a little louder and with a point toward Terry sang “I love you though you’re ugly so…”
“That’s not even the words! Mama, make him stop it!” Four and a half hours from Boiling Springs to Myrtle Beach with Matt and Terry and “Tainted Love” in heavy rotation. It was in good company that summer: The Cars’ “Shake It up”; Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now”; Van Halen’s Diver Down and The J. Geil’s Band’s Freeze Frame. Haircut 100’s “Love Plus One” — I need to stop. Nothing more boring than a rambling list.
The real monster though — at least among the mullets, muscle shirts, and painter caps — was Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.” I don’t know if every scrawny redneck saw himself as a tanned and striated Italian when they heard that familiar Dun. Dun-Dun-Dun or what, but Sweet Fancy Moses was that song popular.
We arrived at the rental house and unpacked the car. Mrs. Ellison decided that little Jessie would share a room with her, and that Terry would get her own bedroom. Matt and I would take the front porch. It was like camping only without the potential for grizzly bear rape. (Note: In 2008, 1,308 campers were raped by grizzly bears. This is only one of many camping facts that I’ve made up.)
Matt and I tossed our gear onto the porch and took off for the Pavillion, which was the main attraction of Myrtle Beach and everything that my father hated: noise, crowds, lights, video games; people trying to suck money out of your pockets for caricatures, airbrushed tees, and carny rides. All of which is to say that every teenager wanted to be there.
We walked through the arcade, saw a kid seated at a Defender machine surrounded by a small crowd. We assumed he was a local: tanned, shirtless, surfer build. His defining feature, though, was a platinum blond Ziggy Stardust-era mullet.
Of the golden era of arcade games none were more challenging than Defender. Too many buttons, too much going on. I imagine that my XBox loving children could tear it up, but in the time of Dig Dug, Frogger and Qbert Defender was a beast. Good Defender players inspired a bit of awe, and we had never seen anyone as good as this kid.
It was almost like watching The Who’s Tommy playing pinball. The surfer dude sat there emotionless, no movement but for his hands and the occasional contraction of his abs during a particularly fast move. On the game’s screen everything was happening — everything. I’d never seen Defender played at that level, just complete chaos, but he calmly dealt with the dozens of competing priorities with near boredom. He played so long that the crowd gave up. Matt and I stayed and watched the kid rack up points at a furious pace, like some sort of Defender version of a Rocky fight montage. Dun. Dun-Dun-Dun.
We were completely awestruck. This was easily the coolest guy we’d every seen: surfer, local, ripped abs, cool hair, Defender bad ass. We stayed as long as it took for the dude to finally lose his last ship. He didn’t slap the machine like the rest of us did, betrayed no emotion at all as he keyed in his name as the top scorer: MICHAEL KING PUNK. Awesome.
With that he hopped off the stool, said “see ya” in a prepubescent squeak, and that’s the last we saw of all five feet of Michael King Punk.
The lights were on outside now, and as we exited the arcade I spotted two girls looking at us. Now I have failed to tell you two critical things about Matt:
1) He loved to play practical jokes
2) He wore the thickest glasses in the history of optometry.
Matt’s glasses were so thick that they required a special neck harness for additional support. They were so thick that I put them on once and discovered a new atomic particle. Matt’s lenses were so thick that he risked his face bursting into flames if the sun hit him just right. So of course this meant that he refused to wear his glasses if there was even the slightest chance of being spotted by a girl.
“Matt, see those two girls over there checking us out?”
“Yeah, they’re cute.”
He was half right. They both wore bikini tops and running shorts, but that’s where the resemblance ended. The brunette was thin with big brown eyes, sort of a Marissa Tomei kind of look. Her friend was as blond as Michael King Punk with mall bangs too tall to fit through most doors. Everything about her was oversized — her hair, her teeth, makeup, body. In other words, she was the only one who Matt could see.
“They’re smiling at us,” I said.
“Yeah, man. Let’s go talk to them.”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on! Eye of the tiger, man. Dun. Dun-Dun-Dun.”
“They’re really checking us out?”
“Okay, but we should decide who gets who.”
Excellent. At this moment a friend would point out to his buddy what was going on, but the friend of a half-blind practical joker?
“Sure, buddy. You know what? You invited me to the Beach, you should get first pick,” I said.
“Naw, come on now.”
“Really! This is your trip, man, I’m just tagging along.”
“Aw man, really?”
“You pick first.”
Matt squinted, paused. “I want the blond.”
“Yeah, she’s hot.”
“All right, let’s go.”
Marissa’s real name was Jenny, and we got along great. Matt could never get past the blond’s blue toenails, sky-high bangs, and “I’ve been Jenny’s tag along one too many times” hard candy coating. He spent the rest of our high school years gluing my locker shut, putting rocks in my hub caps, coming up with ever more inventive ways to soak me. And all because I conned him out of the cute one at Myrtle Beach during the summer before tenth grade.
Totally worth it.