He sits all day long in his room while the California sun burns bright outside—on the days when he's not behind the fryer at the deep fried fish-n-chips shop, or at the mall, or at the gun range—there in the pitch black, behind the windows wrapped in canvas tent fabric that he got from the Army Surplus Store and cut down to size with the Rambo knife, that really was as “sharp as a motherfucker”, just like he said it was, and I was like, “Damn, son, you look like some kind of actual serial killer holding that shit”, and it was probably the first but definitely not the last time I saw his eyes light up in a way that I was never entirely sure with J if I should be worried; or if, like most of the people I knew, he just had some, what you might call, sick proclivities but was overall a stand-up dude when it came down to basic human nature. He had hung each piece of canvas from the tops of the two windows and pinned them at very short intervals into the drywall to make the perfect set of blackout curtains.
When I asked him what he would do when he wanted to open up the windows, his jaw hung open awhile and finally he told me, “That isn't going to happen,” and so I took his word for it.
Even in the sunniest of days, his room was an envelope of black. The essential trappings of the besieged, of insomniacs, of daytime video game junkies. So it was here, in this ink black crevice, that he sat, all day, like some god-king, in front of his game machine. He was not just “playing video games”—J liked to put that in air quotes himself whenever he talked about his hobby—he was doing speed runs. Game by game, level by level, over and over again, going for the most perfect run of whatever game happened to fixate him and his group of “runners” at the moment, an execution of intent so precise that you could hold it up to God themself and They would all but shower you in emojis. Junior told me they even had Sex Speed Runs, where the object was to get laid as fast as possible, and, in the case of the Fallout series, once you had completed the final sex act, in the final quadrilogy of games, you were to strike dead the underground bunker's German nightclub singer whom you've just convinced to sleep with you, strip off all your clothes, and then run out into the hallway of the old irradiated hotel, at which point the run was considered complete. In the earlier games, it was more about bypassing certain enemies by holding to the left or right of the screen so as not to trigger their routines, and then you paid the right woman in the right bar, with bottle-caps and she took you to a private room and that was that.
These speed runs fascinated me, to say the least. Part of the time that counted for your run when you were doing a multi game marathon was the loading of one game to the next, so you had to have your discs ready, and you had better hope that the console didn't have any read errors while you waited. Some of the runners took that time to pee, mostly into bottles they held nearby, or to shove a hotdog down their gullets along with some Red Surge Mountain Dew.
J only did speed runs on his off-days, which varied throughout the two years that I lived in that house. Sometimes it was Sunday and Tuesday, sometimes Monday/Wednesday, but for a summery period in 2013 it was Tuesday and Wednesday, right in a row, which gave Junior a recovery day at the table in the kitchen. This was when we really got to know each other.
You'd see him at about 14:00 shoveling home a plate of eggs doused in hot sauce, and then you'd see him still that evening around the kitchen table. These were the only nights that he ever really sat with any of us at the kitchen table, which we ringed on the regular, with cigarettes and joints and tall cans of beer.
“Hey Junior,” I would ask him. “What is it about, all these runs?”
He would smile at me through the haze of a good load of tall cans and whiskey—Junior always drank a little too much, a little to fast, but to counterbalance that he had a crazy high tolerance for the booze itself, and would regularly be one of the last up at the tables.
“So, what is it about these fucking things?” I'd reiterate, five hours later. The dust and refuse of human beings lay about our feet and arms. A fetid taste like liquid mud lacquered onto my tongue. I lit what I told myself was the final, final cigarette, and leaned back and looked at Junior in the sad light of our single, naked 100W overhead bulb.
“It's the fucking perfection of it,” he says. “And the fact that when I play these things, thousands of people are watching me do it.”
I hadn't realized that, that it was something social, that you could watch other people play; but of course you could; that J was literally something of a rock star in this small but very active community, whereas I could barely get four people to read my blog, made me stop and think.
“Okay, I get it. It's like the Olympics, you know, you keep shooting to beat the other guy, and you watch for the thrill of it, because you never really know if the next guy can go any faster or not.”
Junior smiled at me with that warm insight of high drunkenness, “But that's where you're wrong,” he grinned. “Because there are bots; people on the boards have trained them. They run the games day and night, and they learn to get better, just like humans, but instead of having good days and bad days, and days when you feel like ass because your mom called and told you some more shit about her creepy sex life that you didn't need to hear, they just keep getting better. Because they don't have to do anything but plug in the numbers as electrical signals into the controllers.”
“So what you're saying is you already know how fast is as fast as you can possibly go?”
There was a long pause. Outside the sun was shining. It was a perfect San Francisco day.
“So it's just the people chasing records that the robots have already written?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess that pretty much sums it up, if you look at it like that.”
“Doesn't that make you feel sad, at all?”
“Not really. I mean, I could go out to the bar and find a girl and get laid, but I don't want to do that right now.”
“And why the fuck not?” I protested.
“To be honest, I've got porn, and these chat cams, you know, they're all free, and they talk to you. Even if it's just other dudes, I'm ok with that. I get off. I go back to my game. And that's just enough for me right now. I don't want the trouble of a girlfriend. They're too expensive, and they whine a lot, and in the end it would just cut too much into my speed run time, and that's not something I'm willing to do at the moment.”
I missed simplicity. I missed sex. I stumbled to the bar, and found myself judging where to sit based on how close it was to a seemingly available female with an open seat nearby.