Wednesday, May 21, 1997, a day spent in anticipation of watching Mortal Kombat the movie on VHS. My younger brother, just a little over six-years-old at the time, and myself (a few weeks shy of 11) are staying at our grandparents’, where instead of going to church on Sunday mornings we stay in and watch Ren and Stimpy. Life doesn’t suck sometimes. Even when at the end of the day our Uncle Troy (by marriage) hands us a rented VHS of Double Dragon the movie instead of Mortal Kombat, it only momentarily stings. What did we expect? The movie’s just come out on VHS that day. Of course, we stood little chance of obtaining a copy.
By all accounts, Double Dragon the movie sucks, but from our perspective the movie’s enjoyable in a ‘I could eat Spaghetti-O’s and watch this on TBS while it’s raining’ kind of way, like He-Man and Howard the Duck. In fact, it is so staggeringly poor that we watch it again immediately after our first viewing. By then it’s after 10:00 pm. Grandpa, who makes a bed of the couch in the living room and likes to watch boxing while playing solitaire and waiting for sleep to come, needs his space, and so my younger brother and I retire to Grandma’s bedroom.
So bad it’s good, a way of enjoying poor movies isn’t quite where we’re at yet in our thinking—I won’t even feel like I’ve seen a truly bad movie until later that summer when we watch Batman & Robin in theaters—but I keep cracking up thinking about how a character getting the upper hand on Alyssa Milano’s character asks Milano, ‘Now who’s the boss?’ It’s funny because it’s stupid. It’s purposelessly self-aware. I’m getting so close to understanding something about myself, about what I find beautiful and interesting in art. Not only because of Double Dragon the movie, but because of what follows in bed.
In eastern Kentucky, no one gives a second thought about family members sharing a bed. By fall of 1997, my brother and I will finally get bunk beds. Until then, we share the same bed. Tonight, we share a bed with Mom and Grandma. From Mom and Grandma, my brother and I inherit a nighttime crutch: we need the TV to sleep. Neither Mom nor Grandma are feeling picky about what we watch tonight. Mostly they just want to sleep. I’m given the remote control, and I flip through channels. Wednesdays are usually for Cartoon Network’s block of 1970s cartoons (The Hairbear Bunch, The Globetrotters), but I don’t know the channel number for Cartoon Network at my grandparents’. I just flip through channels. I happen to land on the start of a Three Stooges short, ‘Rhythm and Weep,’ on the Family Channel, a channel I hadn’t watched since I was much younger. Shows like Zorro and 1966’s Batman. I knew of the Three Stooges from pop culture references and from a cartoon called The Robonic Stooges on Cartoon Network. I decide to watch the short, to understand the Stooges first-hand (sic).
Failed Entertainers and Poetry
In ‘Rhythm and Weep,’ the Stooges are failed entertainers. They lose the last gig in the city. The man who fires them (the club owner? their agent?) advises them, when they despair over not knowing what to do without any employment prospects, to kill themselves. The Stooges just accept this as the natural course of events and proceed to a building ledge. There they encounter three dancers, all women. The dancers, too, have reached the same dark clarity. They have failed as entertainers, and so. So.
Before the sextuplet jump, they hear piano music. The Stooges pair off with the dancers and dance on the building ledge. While dancing with his partner in his arms, Larry Fine turns to the camera and says something to the effect of, ‘I get paid to do this, folks!’ (I haven’t seen this short in almost 23 years, but I remember distinctly the events of the short and Larry’s breaking the fourth wall.) At this critical moment, when the sextuplet was prepared to end it all, they fall in love. I fall asleep and miss the rest of the short. But what I see of ‘Rhythm and Weep’ not only makes me a fan for life of the Three Stooges but also clarifies for me what art, what poetry is: an absurd course of events in which ordinary people on the brink of destruction save themselves by finding one another. All the better if it’s rendered comically. If a voice from within momentarily and charmingly draws attention to the artifice of the performance without breaking the emotion and tension, if it enhances the comedy, it is truly masterful.
For some reason in elementary school, the adults want us to suffer, or at least to be aware that we will suffer. Every week the guidance counselor comes with VHS cassettes about coping with death, about avoiding child abductors complete with reenactments of when children failed to get away and were dragged off the streets, about kids who try pot one time and die go to a void where they recount the last afternoon of their lives, about drunk drivers sending themselves or a pedestrian through a windshield. We read, memorize, and recite poetry. Blake’s ‘The Tyger.’ Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ We internalize ideas about a Creator who creates a fearsome predator, ideas about the despair of losing a leader. A police officer in a black uniform comes every week to explain how he will arrest us if we are so much as out with a friend who has this and he holds up a bong, which means nothing to me, except that if I have friends I can be taken away from them, from my family, from my life. There is no catharsis. If I try to draw a comic on notebook paper, it’s confiscated. I’m called lazy. I write a short three paragraph essay on Super Mario World. That same day the teacher criticizes young people for wasting our lives on games, which are violent. Then in comes the guidance counselor. Another body goes through the windshield.
American Education at Home
On Friday nights I stay up to watch the Three Stooges on the Family Channel. For a time, Friday nights are awesome. There’s the TGIF block on ABC, though it seems to be winding down somewhat since Family Matters (or Urkel as everyone calls it) has moved on to CBS. Then there’s the block of programming on Family Channel that begins with reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Unfortunately, there’s an hour of paid programming between The Tonight Show and the Three Stooges: The 700 Club, a televangelical ‘newsmagazine.’ This hour of programming is nightmare fuel. Every story becomes a sign for the unavoidable apocalypse. Pat Robertson, the host, assures 10-year-old me that without Jesus I will go to hell. I don’t know what this means; but every time Robertson asks the ‘unsaved’ to join him in a prayer for forgiveness, I do. I don’t know what I’m sorry for, but I don’t want to burn in hell. Sometimes an ‘ad’ plays during The 700 Club. A crowd stands horror struck looking up. We see in a tight shot the distressed face of Uncle Sam looking down. Seeing the absolute look of sorrow on the face of Uncle Sam mortifies 10-year-old me. Iconography seldom comes to life in a clear moment of crisis. And of course, it becomes all too clear that Sam is a jumper. As he leaps, he takes with him the soul of America. Why? It has something to do with President Clinton, and music. Rock music. I try to stay out of the room when the commercial comes on, or I try to work on a comic in my notebook and avoid looking at the TV.
Replicants and Imperfections
The joy of Mortal Kombat, the games, for me has little to do with the combat (especially the fatalities) from 1994-1997. It’s the world of Mortal Kombat. The purely surface level division of good and evil, where the soul, the eternal part of us, is at stake. The simple but elegant design of blue ninjas, yellow ninjas, green ninjas. The facsimiles of Bruce Lee and Jean Claude Van Dam that have charm and character, no matter how vague, beyond that of their inspiration. The four-armed half dragon monsters, and sorcerers who take the form and abilities of fallen warriors. I’m being necessarily glib. I know the names of these characters in 1994: Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile; Liu Kang, Johnny Cage; Goro, and Shang Tsung, respectively. I’m somewhat frightened of Goro, who stomps across the screen to back hand the Acclaim logo off the screen in the first Mortal Kombat game, the port of which we own for the Super Nintendo. Famously, this home console port does not contain blood; but in our family this only seems to bother Uncle Troy, who typically makes quick work of me and my younger brother, for while we are button mashers, and I shamelessly spam uppercuts, Uncle Troy seems to know every combo to launch lightning, fireballs, and Scorpion’s hook. On one occasion, I manage to win against Uncle Troy, but not before he lands a lightning bolt on me. ‘Ain’t gonna be no flawless,’ he hollers giddily.
Nothing compares to seeing the animatronic Goro in the first Mortal Kombat movie. While I would not see this Goro in action until 1997, I see stills of him in a promotional magazine in late summer 1995. He looks better than he has any right to. In scale to other characters, he is appropriately larger and menacing. It’s easy for my mind to run away with such imagery. One afternoon after school in 1995, when I am old enough to stay by myself for a few hours while my dad finishes work and picks up my younger brother from the babysitter’s, I go outside and play in the backyard. This kind of alone play suits me better than other kinds of play. It seems everyone wants some kind of competition—tag, four square, kick ball—or else they want to run as fast as they can. I just like to walk around at my own pace and imagine things, have little conversations with myself, act things out. Mostly I have little private worlds that I visit, but sometimes I narrate my own life experiences as though they were episodes in a TV series, as though I were a narrator recounting the experiences to my audience and teasing them by asking, ‘What will Chris do next?’ It makes me feel better to think that there’s an audience rooting for me, who are invested in my story. When I’m made to watch videos about death in school, or when someone spits on me on the school bus, I tell myself that these are just standard comedic obstacles that prompt me to turn to the camera and say something like, ‘I get paid to do this, folks!’ Somewhere an audience laughs. But on this afternoon, it’s difficult to think of anything but the animatronic Goro. The image of him rounding the corner of the concrete unattached garage to get me are intrusive and impossible to shake. It’s almost as though I can feel him right there waiting for me. My heart races and I go back inside the house.
American Education at Home
I feel ashamed and annoyed at myself. I know Goro’s fiction. I know I won’t encounter the animatronic Goro outside. I’m eating a Lunchables nacho kit in the kitchen and I resolve to go back outside and play once I’m done.
Still not there. I walk around the corner of the garage. A young hillbilly like me can stand walking barefoot on the gravel drive with mostly no problem, only occasionally feeling a jab from a sharp angular bit of gravel. I’m not enjoying myself at all, but staying outside feels necessary. It has something to do with having control over my fear. I spend most days at school caught in worry over not doing my work right and getting reprimanded or getting carried away in talking to myself and losing recess. Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m nervous. Once the guidance counselor enters the room, pushing her metal cart loaded with video cassettes and a hospital thermal cup, I know I won’t be sleeping that night from the images playing over and over. Even if this is a comedy, at some point I know I need to be stronger. I can’t let the idea of Goro keep me from being where I want to be, which happens to be in the sun.
I get myself in a loop, going from the side yard to the backyard, from one corner of the garage to the other. If I keep moving, even if I feel nervous or afraid, I at least have some right to claim that I’m living.
As I move from the backyard to the side yard, I freeze. A gray sedan’s coming up our drive. Two men up front. Don’t know them.
My palms freeze. My whole body’s frozen.
The car comes to a stop. Both the driver and the man in the passenger seat get out immediately. The driver looks stern. The passenger smiles.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘Are your parents home?’
I get lightning in my heart. The men move toward me, but now I feel that I can move. All the training from the VHS cassettes kicks in.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘They’re taking a bath.’ I botch the line, but I scurry up the back-porch steps. I lock the kitchen door behind me and run to the bathroom and lock the door.
I can’t remember what happens afterwards. I never see the men again for sure. My younger brother and my dad come home for sure. Likely, my dad’s angry because I locked the doors. He never locks doors. It doesn’t matter to him that his truck’s been stolen before or if I explain that I’ve learned to lock the doors when adults aren’t home.
Not long after, one day after school, I see his truck parked out, and I feel better. It’s better to have an adult home than not. I turn the doorknob to the kitchen door. It’s locked. I keep turning the knob. I knock on the door. I beat on the door. I go to the front door. It’s locked, too.
‘Dad! Dad!’ I pound the door.
I go to the backdoor. I beat and call out, ‘Dad! Dad!’
I collapse on myself and cry outside the kitchen door. After a few minutes, he stands in the open doorway.
‘How’s it feel?’ he asks. I don’t think I know the word empathy yet, but if I turned to my audience and asked if I lacked it, I doubt any of them would say so. Right now it’s hard to meet them with a joke.
Chris Prewitt is the author of Paradise Hammer (SurVision Books), winner of the 2018 James Tate Poetry Prize. Prewitt’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Twitter correspondence welcome: @poetcprewitt