Andy is turning 8 and losing his mind. At least there will be balloons and pizza.
For Andy's eighth birthday, Diane had asked him where he would like to have his party. He couldn't decide, so he did what he usually did when posed with a question. He said nothing.
"Last chance, Andy. I've got to get this party off my plate. Now tell me. Where would you like to have your birthday party?" said Diane Anderson to her seven year-old son, Andy.
Andy was sitting on the living room floor watching a VHS tape of a Transformers episode. He stared at the screen with an intensity that unnerved Diane. At best, Andy was either obsessed with Transformers or the TV in general. Diane had not taken the time to determine which and was unlikely to find the time to do so.
Diane had asked Andy about his party earlier that day and twice more earlier that week. Each time she asked, Andy returned one of two responses: "I don't know," or silence. Diane had, in her estimation, hosted as many home-based birthday parties as she ever would, so unless another venue got picked, Andy would be looking at a somewhat underwhelming eighth birthday party.
She was almost to the point of telling her seven year old son that the window of opportunity for his party had just closed when inspiration struck. What would Alan pick? Andy certainly looked up to Alan and liked many of the same things as his older brother. Once she approached the problem from this angle, her answer came almost without another thought.
"Andy, how does Showbiz Pizza sound to you?" said Diane.
Andy's large, almost out of proportion eyes finally shifted off of the day's epic battle between Autobots and Decepticons. The corners of his mouth twitched up in a blink-and-you-missed-it smile. "You mean the place Alan's party was?" said Andy. His voice was froggy and deep from having gone so long without speaking.
"That's the place. I seem to remember you having a pretty good time at his party. This time it will be your birthday, so the party will be all about you. What do you say? Let's just have your party there, OK?" said Diane. She hoped the frustration and increasing boredom she felt on the subject did not come through in her voice. The seven soon-to-be-eight year old Andy made nothing of her pleading tone in the moment, but later he would.
Once the venue had been selected, Diane could almost move on autopilot to complete the rest of the plans for Andy's birthday. Cake flavor, ice cream flavor, theme, favors... all of the details that need to be defined before a child's birthday party fell into place using one of two sources of information. Diane would first ask The birthday boy himself. Then, when that did not produce an answer, Diane would assign what she knew to be Alan's answer in place of Andy's.
In the years to come, Diane would continue this practice. Eventually she began to believe that all of these substitutions would seem more like coincidences. For some time after that, the coincidences would be forgotten and Diane would truly believe that she knew everything about both of her sons and that both of them had nearly everything in common.
The first breakdown in this system came right away, but somehow it was not enough for Diane to try and get to know Andy separately from Alan.
All that week, Diane could sense Andy's excitement building. The Thursday before the party, Andy asked Diane, "Is it gonna be a Transformers party?"
"I thought we talked about this. You said you wanted Showbiz Pizza," said Diane.
"You said Showbiz. I wanted Transformers," said Andy. His small, strange face wore its familiar intensity, but one might notice a small wrinkle forming between his eyebrows. Diane would notice it soon, but not yet. "I watch Transformers every day, Mom. It's my favorite."
"Ohhh. Right. Sure. We can do that. You can have a Transformers party at Showbiz," said Diane. "Which ones are those? Talking cars and robots? Junk like that?"
Now Diane noticed his little eyebrows furrowing. Diane was aware that the oddness and intensity of Andy's eyes normally made casual bystanders uncomfortable, but she rarely felt that way herself. She looked back at him and finally understood he felt confused, embarrassed and something else. The missing emotion could have been anger, but Diane could not easily believe that a seven year old would be able to show anger over an innocent question about cartoon characters.
"It's not junk. It's my favorite show. I watch it every day," said Andy. His voice was even, but his eyes were burning holes through hers and his hands were clenching into tight little fists. He wanted to retaliate. "Donahue and Oprah are junk," he said. It was a fair response he thought.
"Andy!" said Diane. Diane was both taken aback and amused. Being scolded by a seven year old felt surreal to Diane. She recalled how when Alan was the same age almost never disagreed with Diane, let alone engage in an argument. Alan was two years older than Andy and Diane often made comparisons such as this one. Andy's willingness to engage her like this was on the rise and she decided to try and scare him straight. At this point, the original subject of the conversation was lost.
"You are not going to speak to me that way! You'll be lucky if I even let you have a birthday party at all!" said Diane in a roar. This was a threat she had no intention of following through on, but she also thought Andy needed a good scare. "Do you understand me?"
"Yes," said Andy.
Andy did not understand her. What he understood was that he was right and that his mom was wrong. He also understood that a threat was now on the table and he did not want to test it. In his almost eight years of life, Andy had truly understood only a handful of concepts. This was one of them. When his mother asked him if he understood, there was only one answer that would get him out of being asked more questions.
The time allotted to Andy's birthday, 2pm to 5pm on the second Saturday in May, 1986, had come, and Diane and her two boys stepped into Showbiz Pizza. At a place like Showbiz, the lunchtime rush would last steadily from 11am to about 5pm, when the dinner-time rush would start. To an adult's ear, the arcade games, the top 40 on the PA system, and the happy/sad wails of children wove a nightmarish tapestry of brain-killing noise. Adding the pungent odors of active child and burned cheese to the pool of stimuli made Showbiz Pizza one of the lesser known levels of hell.
It was 1:52 as Diane carried a box full of Go-bots-themed plates, cups, hats, blowers, goody bags, pencils... Whatever Diane could find in the party aisle at Walgreens on the way home Friday that had a talking car on it had wound up in the box Diane carried.
The boys were itching to start playing games and horsing around with friends as they filtered in, but Diane intended on having both boys help her set up the party area. The snowball of disaster started rolling when Andy took a closer look in Diane's box.
"Where are the Transformers?" asked Andy as he unpacked the box of party supplies. "I only see Go-Bots."
Diane was looking away from Andy. She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "Isn't that what I bought?" she said, although by now she knew her mistake. "Aren't all talking robot car things the same?"
"Mo-om! I told you Transformers was my favorite! You never remember," said Andy. "Nobody likes Go-Bots."
"Andy, it's no big deal. People are just going to put their cake on these," she said as she held up the plates. "Nobody will care if it's a talking truck or a talking scooter." She tried to use her motherly powers of persuasion to smooth over this deteriorating situation. She sighed. "Why don't I handle the rest of setting up? You guys go play."
Diane gave each of the boys an equal number of tokens and set them loose. Alan ran in one direction, vaguely toward the skee-ball games, and Andy marched directly to the shooting gallery. Shooting galleries had become an inconvenient issue between son and mother. She was of the mind that guns and little boys did not mix, while Andy thought they went together like milk and chocolate. Diane had not had a chance to offer her usual "No shooting games" admonition, and Andy was not going to wait around for her to remember it.
Andy had six tokens designated for test-firing the six shooting gallery rifles. As methodically as his now eight-year-old mind and body could manage, he went about using each of the available rifles to blow hats off of miners, birds off of branches and kettles off of stoves. In his mind, he was performing an inspection of an armory's rifles. Once he settled on the best rifle, he would be happy to sink all of his tokens into the machine.
First rifle, four of ten.
Second rifle, three of ten.
Third rifle, four of ten.
Fourth rifle, five of ten.
Fifth rifle, four of ten.
Sixth rifle... A fat kid reeking of onions that Andy did not recognize had parked himself on a stool and was monopolizing the sixth rifle. After shooting with the other five rifles, he was sure that the sixth rifle would be the one that would help him shoot better. He stared at the boy. Staring was Andy's most reliable tool for expressing strong emotion at this point in his life.
"Buzz off, kid. I'm gonna be here a while," said the fat kid into open space.
"I want to use that rifle," said Andy. His eyes were fixed on the fat kid's face. He would not turn to face Andy or move to put down the rifle, though.
"Tough shit, kid. I got this rifle first. Those're all screwed up, and I'm workin' on a high score here," said the fat kid in a rehearsed pattern. Other kids had already tried to unseat his husky Bermuda shorts-covered butt from that spot, it would seem.
"It's my birthday," said Andy. He thought it might be too soon for such a strong play, but Andy would always go for the homerun with his first swing. He thought the immutable, universal rights and privileges granted by one's own birthday would convince the fat kid to relinquish the sixth rifle.
"Fuck off," said the fat kid.
At eight years old, Andy had not been told to fuck off, and, although fuzzy on the vernacular, he knew the fat kid wanted him to leave. Unthinkable. Unmoving and staring hard, Andy's mind raced. Maybe this was also the fat kid's birthday? But if that were the case, he would have said it to counter Andy's birthday play. The fat kid had sworn at him at least once. Andy was unsure about "fuck off," but he was counting that as a swear, too.
"Please," said Andy. Although not as strong as the birthday gambit, Andy thought maybe the fat kid was adhering to the strictest forms of politeness, like a teacher or grandma.
The fat kid finally turned from the rifle sight to size up Andy. He had a broad, pale face with freckles and orange-red hair. He also wore aviator-style prescription glasses. Andy could tell he was older than a "big-kid". He was probably a teenager. "Alright, kid. C'mere."
Andy approached. When he was within range, the fat kid leaned back on his stool, lifted one of his barrel-sized legs up, and pushed Andy on the chest with it. Hard. Andy stumbled back several steps before his feet tangled up and he fell.
A Showbiz Pizza employee deftly stepped back out of Andy's path and avoided getting clobbered and losing her tray. She lost the tray anyway when an embarrassed and confused Andy shot to his feet and rammed his head into the bottom of the tray. The tray had held a large, fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza, four pitchers of Coke and small cardboard sign that read, "Happy Birthday, Andy!"
Alan had heard the commotion and came to investigate. As the Showbiz employee started to clean up herself and the floor, Andy just stood in place. Unaware of Andy's suffering at the feet of the shooting gallery hog, Alan put a hand Andy's shoulder and guided him toward the bathroom.
Andy shook off his brother's hand and turned in the direction of the donkey-braying fat kid. He stomped back in the direction of the shooting gallery. Alan was left looking at Andy's backside in confusion. He could see that his brother was heading directly toward a much older, much bigger boy sitting on a stool at the shooting gallery. Alan decided to follow.
Although the fat kid could clearly see Andy's approach, he turned his attention back to the gallery and attempted to line up the sight on rifle number six. "Beat it, kid. If I keep laughin' like this, I'll never make a shot," he said.
"You kicked me! You ruined my birthday!" said Andy. "Now you're laughing at me." Andy felt embarrassed and angry. His stare was as intense as Alan had seen yet.
"Are you fucking slow? I can probably get Professor Foot to give you another lesson," said the fat kid between chuckles and chortles. He was still making a show of not paying any attention to Andy.
Andy was sweating, his heart was pounding, and it was then that the fragile membrane keeping his sanity from dissolving gave way.
Andy went over to the shooting-gallery counter, still with five semi-functional rifles laying on it, and climbed up onto it. He stood up, walked toward the leaning figure in the sixth rifle station, and kicked. Andy's foot connected with the spot on the rifle that was supported with the fat kid's left hand. The kick shot the rifle out of his hands and sent it tumbling into the gallery's retaining wall as its tether snapped.
The fat kid cried in pain from the kick, and his right index finger was jammed from being caught in the trigger guard during the kick. In surprise, he pushed back from the counter and toppled backwards off the stool. His awkward form came to rest a few feet in front of the spot Alan stood. Defensively, the fat kid brought his injured hands close to the center of his body. From the ground, he looked back up toward Andy.
Alan had no idea what to do. He'd never seen Andy or anyone else do anything like this. His ten-year-old brain knew a mom-problem when he saw it. He took off in that direction.
"Can I use the rifle now?" said Andy as he reached to the spot where the contested rifle lay. He picked it up from the barrel-end and hopped down off the counter.