Here's a little bit about Gus. We'll freeze the frame here, pause the movie, and I'll tell you a bit more about him, because it’s starting to be relevant now. Gus was not ordinary, and when I say that, I don't mean he was “off centre” or off kilter. Not at all. I think Gus knew that there was something better in store for him than a day job at a comic book store. And his Grandpa did too. Gus had every issue of every magazine, every article, and every piece of information he could get his hands on, on the world of Competitive Eating. Yes, competitive eating. And if you'll excuse the blatant pun, he devoured it.
That's right. He had dreams, beyond even the average awkward 18 year old, and Gus was already forging his way. He knew all the tricks. Hot dogs dipped in water to bypass unnecessary chewing. Fried chicken worked the other way. If he held his neck properly, he could work beyond chewing around the bone by 'sword swallowing' the drum stick whole. And mayonnaise was a blessing for every difficult food to get down. Gus had “World Champion Competitive Eater” written all over his face. He already held the record for the most bowls of soup eaten at the annual Fowlerton Soup Festival, but that’s pansy stuff and he knew it. I mean let’s face it, he drank 6 gallons of milk every morning, in 30 seconds, to train himself to quickly expand his stomach, and also to practice not puking. But I didn’t know all this at the time. These are just a few of the things I would come to learn about him after I joined the game. But he certainly is, and was, a very driven individual, and that much was already clear to me at the time.
So, by the time Grandpa Bunker had said, "Yes, it’s chow mein. I made it for you and your young friends there. Here ya go. How's the homework coming?", Gus was not only through the process of shoving his final mouthful of chow mein in, with a perfectly poised fist, but responded. "It's not homework, grandpa, it's a game. But anyway, it's going great. I accidentally blew up a mermaid, but we're about to kill the mer-King anyway, and then they'll all die, and then we can find the ones who started the uprising and either negotiate with them or kill them. And Hanna drowned, too."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said grandpa softly, and looked in Hanna's direction with a mixture of mock concern and fondness.
"Gus, I do have something to tell you," said grandpa. "I finally found someone to buy this godforsaken comic book store off my hands, and I'm going to be retiring soon! And not just retiring, but taking part in a new medical surgery! You know, it's been eighty years of blindly struggling, but maybe the good Lord wants me to see after all. It's a trade, this book shop, these books that I could never read before, sold so I can finally look at what I've only known as the smell of coffee. It’s the darndest thing!" Grandpa walked out of the room, and just in case no one could hear the sing-song melody in his voice, the merry bounce in his white cane confirmed it.
The rest of the group was already trying to get back into game mode, but Gus sat silently, thunderstruck by the sudden news.
Sell the comic book store??? For the last three years, Gus had helped his Grandpa Bunker in the comic book shop. Sure it was just a little over minimum wage, but his daily roleplaying group had been an almost overnight success. There were always five or six of Gus's friends in the back room which had once been used as his grandpa's quiet area. It was a win win situation. Gus got a nice paycheck, and the store was always lively with kids who happily got all their gaming books and supplies for free. And if it ever got busy enough in the store that it distracted the game at hand, Gus had Dwayne design a 'Do Not Disturb – Warriors on Duty'' sign in calligraphy to tape on the door.
Understandably, Grandpa’s news was not good news. And none of it made sense whatsoever to Gus. As I said, Gus already knew there were bigger things in store for him. When the doctor had first called his Grandpa about the vision surgery, Gus was already suspect. First, $30,000 was a lot of money for one surgery. For Gus, who generally carried enough money in his pocket to secure a bag of chips, a Slurpee and a Cajun Swiss Melt, that amount seemed incomprehensible.
Gus had thought that his Grandpa had finally settled on the side of logic. It was two days ago that the doctor had called with the exciting news. Gus knew it wasn't as exciting as the Doctor had made it out to be.
“Grandpa, haven't we discussed the Illuminati?”, he had offered. It was a futile question, irritating to Gus who knew that in Grandpa's prime, working as a field medic for Allied Forces in Tripoli, there was no time for talk of Google or New World Orders. If anything, Gus felt obliged to protect the war Veteran he called “Gramps”.
So, Gus had sat in his Grandpa's kitchen, in the apartment over the store, explaining, once again, how the Masons controlled the Health Care Industry. The Doctor likely meant well because he didn't know about them either. Did they really want Grandpa to have his vision back? Maybe. But probably not for the reasons that the Doctor was told. There was something infuriating to Gus about the powers that be targetting aging war veterans for whatever madness they were likely pursuing. Grandpa had sat at the table, his cane tapping on the cracked linoleum, taking in his only grandson's determined voice as if it were a live performance of the Boston Pops. He admired Gus. That firecracker spirit brought him back to earlier days.
Gus was probably right. Even if the surgery worked, and even if the Doctor was not being used by an organization that hailed back to the darker Knights Templar for some ulterior motive, Gus made a good point. What good was $30,000 spent on vision for a man with maybe two years left on the planet? He was, after all, 80 years of age, and not in the best of health otherwise. Gus, smart as a whip at math, figured that out to $7500 a year, per eye. Was that worth sacrificing the joy that they all received from the comic book shop? Maybe he could do just as well with one eye. That would bring it down to $3,750 per eye. Gus always did have logic behind him.
“Grandpa, I know you've never seen before,” Gus told him. “So, you don't know this, but I do. Seeing out of one eye is the same thing. Honestly, if someone would give me $3,750 a year, I'd actually give them one of my eyes!”
And Gus did have a point, again. For a man whose eyes were shaded like coal, Grandpa's face made up for the expression his eyes had never provided. His face carried tiny embellishments that showed themselves when he was pleased, the texture of fresh salmon. Oh, he was proud of his Grandson, so determined with his future. And Grandpa also knew the sound of a donut being swallowed, and he had heard three in the span of less than a minute. Gus was right. Selling the comic book store was a selfish thing to do, and the elder Bunker, frail and learned, had no problem learning what he could from the younger generation.
So, what did Gus do, on that one fateful day when Grandpa had stepped into the room, placating him with chow mein noodles, and announced that he had, after all, betrayed his own Grandson by actually agreeing to sell the comic book store? In the back room, I had sat, looking at some of the many painted figurines that cluttered the game table. I wasn't so much interested in the figurines as having somewhere to place my attention. Gus was clearly pissed and he made an indignant snorting sound while bouncing his straw into his Slurpee glass. He wasn't looking anywhere but down. Hanna was by far the most vocal of them all. As usual.
“What the Christ, Gus? I thought you talked to him!”
Gus shook his head from side to side and peered further into the cup, like he had lost something.
“I'm serious, Gus. This totally sucks so bad. He's selling the comic book store. He’s selling! the! comic book store!” she panted.
It was probably 8 o'clock by then, and the street lights had been on for a couple of hours. I had of course assumed that the game was over for the night, and while I was hoping to hear some type of resolution about the mer-King's harem, I was really sticking around just to see where this comic-book-store-selling dilemma would lead. I was new to the group, true, but this was one of those times that seemed important to camaraderie. Gus and Hanna seemed like a pretty cool duo to be around, so if they needed a ride somewhere or a hand, I'd want to be the one that can offer it. Maybe it seems like a selfish motive to stick around during an obviously turbulent time, but it wasn't. This was only my first night as part of this game, and knowing these people, but I knew already that I wanted very much to be accepted by them.
Gus rolled his empty Slurpee cup across the table, almost as if gesturing to Hanna that she should take it. Then to reinforce his discontent, he stood up, and with his hands on the table leaned towards her.
“Do you know what this image is, here, Hann?”, looking down at his chest, “Right here” - now pointing at his chest.
I had been curious myself about the logo on Gus' T-shirt. I saw it every day because he wore it every day. I thought it must have had some special meaning because he never washed it. It had a picture of one those old style Nintendo game characters, all made out of little blocks. It looked like a man holding a stick with something coming out of it. Everyone else at the table looked like they weren't really impressed except for young Parker and I.
Hannah smiled in response and when Gus stretched his arm out, shoulder height, his massive arms like gelatin, he clenched his hand into a fist. Hannah bumped it with her own and looked down at the ground with a silly smile on her face.
“That's right, 8 bit wizards, baby!”
“Eight bit wizards, all it takes is 8 bits.”, said Gus, gaining energy as she became more resolute, “and how many do we have?”
“128.”, said Hannah, and as she did, her glitter covered sneakers did a little shimmy in the dull gray carpet.
“Say, gang! How many bits are we?”
“128!”, yelled Parker gleefully, his eyes widening.
“128”, I said, not wanting to push myself on this new group of friends, but enjoying the moment as I raised my cup of soda in Gus and Hannah's direction.
“The new guy’s got it”, said Gus as he looked towards Erick and Dwayne.
“Yeah, Yeah, Gus. OK.”, said Dwayne, “We'll save the comic book store” It was if he didn't mean it but couldn't be bothered arguing.
“This is crap”, said Erick, as he slid out his chair from the table, grabbed his books into a pile like he was leaving. “Let me tell you something, the store's sold. Get over it.”
“Not necessarily,” said Hanna. “We can still try to convince Grandpa Bunker to change his mind.”
“Yeah,” said Dwayne. “Or maybe we can kidnap him and force him to call off the deal, or something.”
“Yeah!” said Hanna. “There’s plenty of things we can do, if we put our minds and powers together, we can do anything! We’ll think of something!”
Erick rolled his eyes and backed out of the room. “Sure you can. Good luck with that.”
“You know what, Erick? You suck!”, sputtered Gus.
“You know what, Gus?” Erick yelled back from the front of the store. “Mer-women don't have vaginas!”
And with that, and the sound of a closing door, Erick was gone, and here I was with Gus, Hannah, Parker and Dwayne, looking for ways to explain to Gus’s blind Grandpa that he didn't need vision surgery.