As far as I was concerned the only thing of any real value traveling in the car with me, the only thing that I worried might be stolen or damaged on my road trip, was a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I’d fantasized about owning one for months. My favorite periodical, Electronic Gaming Monthly, described in borderline pornographic detail the machine’s powerful 16-bit central processing unit—the original Nintendo, by comparison, employed a laughably puny 8-bit processor—the unprecedented Mode-7 effects, and the Super FX chip. Though I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do this, that I couldn’t possibly afford such an indulgence, not now, not mere days before I was about to set off on the greatest, most profound adventure of my life, one weekday evening a few weeks before my road trip I found myself drifting through the aisles of the local department store. Before my better judgment could kick in, before I could stop myself, I was rushing out of the store, already wracked with shame and guilt, with a brand new Super Nintendo under my arm.
Videogames were my weakness. Nothing enchanted me and also simultaneously made me feel so terrible about myself the way that videogames did.
The only TV in our house was located in the downstairs living room. I patiently waited for my parents to finish watching their programs and to go to bed before quietly unpacking the Super Nintendo for the first time. I connected the various cords to the various ports and switched it on. The graphics were terrific, just as Electronic Gaming Monthly had promised they would be. The Mode-7 effects were nothing short of stunning. I felt that “super” was a woefully inadequate modifier to describe this incredible machine.
I was polishing off the Donut Plains and about to enter the Vanilla Dome in Super Mario World, enjoying myself as much as I’d ever enjoyed myself, when I realized that I wasn’t alone in the living room. My father, dressed only in a pair of white Fruit of the Looms and his wire-frame eyeglasses, was standing at the base of the stairs. I looked at him. He looked at me. He hated videogames as much as he hated anything in the world. Finding his 22-year-old son playing videogames in the middle of the night did not make him happy. “Jesus,” he said under his breath, as if he’d found me dissecting a puppy while wearing one of mom’s bras. Then he asked: “When are you going to outgrow those things?”
I felt anger rising in my chest. “I don’t know,” I said.
He informed me of the time—1 a.m.—then told me to keep it down. Then he went back upstairs to bed.
During my last weeks of living at home, this became our ritual: I’d play the Super Nintendo at an impossibly low volume, trying to enjoy myself, trying to forget about how terrified I was to be leaving home soon, and like clockwork my father would appear in his underwear at some point to shake his head at me, inform me of the time, and go back to bed. I knew it was coming, and would try to prepare myself accordingly. But each time it happened, it devastated me. Each time it happened, I’d wind up feeling gutted and angry. I’d sit there with clenched, shaking fists, wanting to scream. Sometimes I did scream into one of my mother’s throw pillows on the couch. I told myself that I’d soon have my own place, where I wouldn’t have to endure my father’s disgusted looks, and where I could play Super Mario World 24 hours a day if I was in the fucking mood to fucking do so.
I very much looked forward to getting to that place. But in order to get to that place, I needed to get through the rest of Pennsylvania first.
In the trunk of the Subaru was one of those faux steamer trunks from Sears. One of my aunts had given it to me as a high school graduation present. It was constructed from the flimsiest materials—reinforced cardboard walls, cheap “brass” lock with a cheap “brass” key, etc. It looked like a prop from a dinner theater production of A Christmas Carol. The fact that it even had a key and lock system at all always struck me as strange, because a kitten or a baby could have broken into the trunk simply by ripping a hole in the side.
At the bottom of the steamer trunk, swaddled in the softest blankets I owned and still preserved in its original packaging, was the Super Nintendo. It would be, I reasoned, safest in there. Still, every time I parked at an Interstate rest area, I’d always wind up half jogging back to the car, convinced that in the few minutes it had taken me to pee and purchase a snack, it had been plundered by bandits. I was sure that there was a thriving black market for Super Nintendos pilfered from vehicles parked in Pennsylvania rest stops. I pictured the bandits tossing around my clothing and personal effects and saying, “The Super Nintendo must be here somewhere! Hey, open up that old-time steamer trunk. I’ll bet anything it’s in there.”
The Super Nintendo and I eventually made it out of Pennsylvania together. After everything that damn state had put me through, I half expected an apology in the form of a road sign saying, “SORRY FOR BEING SO LARGE AND BORING, AND FOR TRYING TO MURDER YOU WITH THAT ANDY BOY LETTUCE TRUCK. SINCERELY, THE KEYSTONE STATE.” What I got was one final rest stop, complete with overpriced gas, several out-of-order urinals, and a $10.99 slice of Sbarro pizza that purported to have eight different kinds of meat on it, and which would, about an hour later, result in moderate-to-severe stomach distress.
As I crossed the border into Ohio, I noted that the word “Ohio” consisted of a mere four letters. This felt like a good omen after the previous state’s 12 letters. But a few miles beyond the border, the sky clouded over and snow began to fall. I was, I realized, driving into a storm. As the storm worsened, I attached myself to a pod of fellow travelers—a pair of westbound vehicles. The three of us drove into the flurries, sticking together by using one another’s taillights as makeshift beacons to get through the worst of it. Having grown up in Upstate New York, I’d practically learned how to drive in lake-effect snow. I was, if I do say so myself, a relatively accomplished snow driver. My fellow pod companions, I soon learned, were not as skilled as I was.
By the time we passed the Boston Heights exit, we were approaching near-whiteout conditions. I followed the pod’s taillights—a pair in the righthand lane directly in front of me, the second pair in the lefthand lane. I followed those taillights as if my life depended on it—which it did. The storm bore down on us, forcing us to drive through what felt like an ever-shrinking tunnel of snow. The three of us should not have been on the roads at all at that point. Yet without an off-ramp or exit in sight, or with any road signs to tell us where we were going or how far away anything was—the storm was, apparently, whiting out the signs—we had no choice but to keep going forward, hoping that we would eventually drive out of the storm. The three of us were inching along at no more than five or at most 10 miles per hour when both pairs of taillights in front of me braked simultaneously. I braked, too.
Something was up ahead.
Through the circling snow, I saw what the other pod members had seen: a yellow, turning strobe light. It was the kind of light typically found on the roof of an emergency vehicle. But it was fifteen, maybe twenty feet high in the air—too high up off the ground to belong to a normal vehicle. As we drew closer, I got the sense that something larger was out there in the snow. Sure enough, a dark shape began to form in the flurries. It was, I could see, a snowplow that had gone off the road. It was sitting plow-first in the ditch, its emergency light turning helplessly. I’d never seen a snowplow off the road like that before. The snowplow functioned as the cushion between the order of humanity and the chaos of the storm. Without the snowplow to fend for us, we were at the mercy of the storm.
I hadn’t realized that we’d been traveling along freshly-plowed roads all along until we nosed our way past the paralyzed plow. Now the three of us, the pod, we were the ones breaking new ground. We drove through snow drifts that practically reached the tops of our wheel wells.
It was in this moment that I realized that the Subaru’s interior was turning chillier than usual. I turned up the heat, then turned it up again. Cold air coursed from the vents. My breath was fogging in front of my face. My feet were going numb. All the gauges on the Subaru’s dash displayed normal readings, but for some reason, whatever mechanism heated the inside of the car had decided to pick this moment to quit working. “Just great,” I said aloud. My feet were so cold that I became paranoid that my foot was on the gas and the brake pedals at the same time. I kept trying to find a moment to steal a glance down at the pedals, to see which pedal or pedals my foot was currently pressing against.
When I looked up again, the twin pairs of taillights of my pod had vanished. While I’d been monkeying around with the heater and defroster knobs and looking down at my numb feet, I’d lost sight of the pod. Everything before me was white. Everything behind me was white. A hushed, expansive silence surrounded me. I wondered, very briefly, if I was dead, if I’d gotten into a car accident and that now I was a ghost who was driving a ghost car on a ghost road.
I gingerly gave the Subaru more gas with my numb foot. Finally, mercifully, there they were again—the taillights of my pod mates. Boy, am I ever glad to see you assholes, I thought. I pictured the three of us, once we’d driven out of this mess, parking at a rest area up ahead. We’d introduce ourselves to one another, then recount the storm again moment by moment, like jocks combing over a big win, all while enjoying $10.99 Sbarro slices and giant sodas. While I was picturing this cozy scene the taillights of my pod-mate in the righthand lane began moving in an erratic fashion.
His taillights swerved to the left. Then they swerved to the right. Then they disappeared completely down the righthand embankment. He was gone.
Before I had a chance to react, the taillights in the lefthand lane also began to swerve. I watched helplessly as my one remaining pod-mate slowly began to lose control of his car. I hunched over the steering wheel and chanted the words, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no” into the car’s windshield, which was now, without the help of the defroster, fogging over from the inside. My second and final pod-mate began spinning in slow, lazy circles: taillights, headlights, taillights, headlights. Then his car—taillights, headlights, the whole thing—disappeared down the lefthand embankment. He was gone.
I could have stopped. Maybe I should have stopped. I didn’t. I told myself that the likely outcome of me pulling over in these conditions would result in me having another snow-blinded vehicle crash into my parked car from behind. I told myself that I could do more good by getting to safety and calling for a fleet of tow trucks. But, if I’m being honest with myself, the real reason I kept going was that I was terrified. Storms like this were no joke. They killed people. I was scared of being swallowed up by all that white. I’d never been so close to this much oblivion before.
And so I kept going, certain that at any moment I would also be yanked down an embankment. Each time the wheels of the Subaru began to go out from under me and I began to skid, all eight kinds of meat from that goddamned Sbarro slice would rise into the back of my throat, and I’d think, OK, here we go.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I calmly turned into the skids. I gave the car gas during moments when a less experienced driver would go heavy on the brake. By doing these two things, and by not losing my cool, at least not completely, I eventually drove clear of the oblivion.
I stood in the tiny glassed-in lobby of the first motel I came to. My teeth chattered so hard that the desk clerk, an old woman, asked me if I was OK. I told her that two cars and a snowplow had gone off the road a few miles back. She picked up the telephone and called the local police. I warmed my hands in front of the space heater. After she hung up the phone she said, “Everyone and everything is out in full force. Don’t worry, they’ll find them.” She gave me the key to one of the rooms.
I opened the door and discovered a small, unremarkable space. Bed. TV. Toilet. Before I had a chance to settle in, I noticed that the lock on the door was broken. I fiddled with it for a few seconds before concluding that there was no possible way to lock the door on this room. I hustled back across the snow-blown parking lot, back to the glassed-in lobby, and reported the broken lock. The old woman sucked her teeth. “The only other room we have tonight doesn’t have heat,” she said.
“So, to be clear, I can stay in a room with a broken lock that is heated, or stay in a room with a working lock that has no heat?” I asked. “Those are my options?”
She was visibly annoyed by my quandry. There was a small TV set going behind the desk. A show was playing that she wanted very much to return her attention to. ”Your third option,” she said, “is you could get back into your car and try the La Quinta Inn. It’s about 30 miles that way.”
Driving another 30 miles in the Subaru at that late hour, after all that the storm had put me through, wasn’t something I felt like doing. And I didn’t want to sleep in a room without heat. So I took the room with the broken lock. I hauled the faux steamer trunk inside my room. In the 30 seconds or so that I had the room’s door open, snow had drifted in from the parking lot halfway across the carpet. I swept out the snow with my boot as best I could, shut the door, then turned up the heating unit as high as it would go.
It rattled to life. Glorious heat billowed forth.
I immediately set to work constructing an elaborate security system in front of the door. My overactive imagination told me that the old woman had two squirrel-eating hillbilly sons who lived in a shack up behind the motel, and that after dark, once I’d settled in, once I was suitably vulnerable, they’d break into the room, murder me, then steal all my belongings, including the faux steamer trunk and the Super Nintendo. This is how it happens, I thought. This is how you become a statistic. This is how travelers wind up getting suckered down the rabbit hole on road trips. This is how you wind up having someone play you in a re-enactment on the TV show, America’s Most Wanted…
My security system was impressive. Any piece of furniture in the room that wasn’t nailed down was stacked in front of the door. Then, at the very top of the furniture pile, at the very edge of a precariously balanced night stand, I balanced an empty water glass. If either one of those hillbillies so much as looked at the door from the outside, the drinking glass would fall and shatter and I would wake up, leap out of bed, and be able to defend myself.
Once I felt safe inside the room, I checked on the Super Nintendo. I removed it from its packaging. The machine’s gray plastic housing was still cold to the touch. I worried that the extreme cold had damaged its delicate inner workings. I decided that I should probably warm it up first, that I should bring it to room temperature before plugging it in to make sure that it still worked. I tucked it into the room’s bed, underneath the motel’s paper-thin sheets and blankets. Then I took a shower. When I came out, I plugged the various cords into the various ports of the room’s TV. I powered up the Super Nintendo and waited for the familiar Nintendo logo to appear onscreen.
After several excruciatingly long seconds, the logo finally appeared. I sat on the edge of the bed with a towel around my waist and a game controller in my hand. Wind howled through the eaves outside the motel. I looked up at the precariously balanced drinking glass high atop my security barricade. I set to work on the Sunken Ghost Ship levels in Super Mario World. I started to forget about my day, started to forget about the storm and how afraid I’d been. I briefly forgot where I was, forgot that I was in a motel room with an unlocked door in the middle of Ohio. I even swiveled my head around a few times, half expecting to find my father standing behind me in his wire-frame eyeglasses and underwear.
Of course, there was nothing there.